Smartly laid out, with one image per spread in oversized, full-bleed thirty-five millimeter aspect ratio, the book allows you to imagine yourself looking through one of Epstein’s personally edited portfolio boxes. Perhaps it also ought to allow you to imagine yourself looking through a window onto America, but then that’s precisely the rub; the generational displacement going on here never convincingly cedes a complete transparency the way that even older photographs by the likes of Walker Evans or Berenice Abbott so readily do. The question of why that happens is answered most keenly by the intrinsic character of Epstein’s style, which in its observational neutrality allows the anecdotal specifics of clothing, cars, and colors to overwhelm the more universal potentiality of photographic meanings.
What makes Mitch Epstein such a decent person—his inability, or at least unwillingness, to exploit the clichés of the alleged social comedy as gratuitously as Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus—not only made him out of sync with his artistic contemporaries (and thankfully so), but ultimately leaves the work supine to its own referents, a container for the spectacle of old tastes, fun and fascinating to ogle, in the same way as a trip through a vintage store or the chintzier parts of the abandoned Vegas strip might be, a chance to indulge in some harmless retro-ironizing. Or, as I once heard someone most acerbically (and disingenuously) summarize Stephen Shore’s work, “Swell. Old cars”.
Looking closely enough though, you can detect a subtlety of construction that in its best forms, as in Miami Beach I, Florida, 1976, creates the kind of unique photographic space that far transcends more glib conventions and attains the rarer gift of grace. In a single image like this, you can see, in perhaps what is the clearest and most fulfilled example of Epstein’s work published to date, the essence of the photographer’s heart and oeuvre. There is empathy that doesn’t stoop to condescension of either subject or viewer—a lesson Arbus never learned—and a taut equilibrium of emotions that is so much more commonly dashed in coarser hands.
© Copyright Gil Blank