Mitch Epstein is among the most renowned American photographers of his generation. Five years after his American Power exhibition at the Fondation Cartier Bresson, he returns to Paris at the Galerie Les Filles du calvaire with New York Trees, Rocks & Clouds, a major trilogy showcased for the first time in France.
For more than four decades, and across the United States, Europe, India and Vietnam, Mitch Epstein has been photographing humankind’s relationship to nature, each other, and modern life. His Recreation series began in the 70’s as an observation of American culture and its landscapes. With no didacticism or judgment, Epstein photographically explored how Americans spent their free time. He expanded these various themes in The City (1995-98), a series which explores the close relationship between public and private space; and in Family Business (2000-02), where he shed light on the complex reality of the American dream with a multiple-genre work that described the closure of his father’s business and demise of his hometown. The book Family Business, which combined still images, film, archival material, interviews, and the artist’s own writing, was seminal. Five years later, Epstein’s acclaimed project American Power (2003-08) was awarded the Prix Pictet; Epstein traveled to twenty-five states to photograph the impact of energy production on the American culture and landscape. Rare among his photographic peers, Epstein has developed a political yet never moralistic or simplistic point of view through questioning symbols of “Americanness” and observing the impact of the economy on society and the environment. He approached other countries with the same kind of questioning. In India, where he lived and made movies with his first wife in the 80’s, he made photographs free of exoticism, inspired by his daily life. The images he made in Vietnam (1993-95), are gathered into a beautiful monograph that offers insight into the cultural shift from traditionalism to modernity. Epstein’s visual tracking of the old within the new gives his work remarkable consistency.
With these last three series exhibited at the gallery, Mitch Epstein shifts his interest toward new motifs and photographic techniques. Employing an 8X10 camera, black and white film, and mural size prints, Epstein applies a unique approach to landscape: his pictures do not isolate nature but investigate it in juxtaposition to urban life. Indeed, when Epstein captures a whirling sky above glass and concrete, or a tortuous tree in the middle of a city, what he questions is humankind’s attempt to conquer or cohabitate with nature.
“My rocks and clouds, like my trees in New York Arbor, exist (photographically) in relation to human enterprise. I’m not a nature photographer. It’s the inextricability of human society and nature that interests me.”
In the 70s, more than a century after the creation of Central Park by landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, American artist Robert Smithson focused on the confrontation of the urban and the natural, in which he saw the possibility of “earth sculptures”. By inviting us to imagine “Central Park a million years ago”, he emphasized how “the notion of park as a static entity – a ground work of necessity and chance – is questioned by the camera’s eye”. The tension between chance and necessity, nature and city intrigued Epstein. Yet his complex pictures transcend the simple opposition between the natural world and civilization. Beyond Central Park, the city of New York, with all its boroughs, becomes the site of Epstein’s mapping project, which revolves around the three motifs of trees, rocks and clouds. The distillation that comes from black and white (new in his work), as well as the infinite scale of greys, accentuates the formal impact of Epstein’s subjects.
By omitting the city’s cacophonous colors, Mitch Epstein directs our eyes toward the essential. He draws the lyrical out of the documentary. His is a contemplative approach where different temporalities intertwine within the same image. The New York Arbor series, conducted between 2011 and 2012, offers a gallery of portraits of the city’s trees. These silent guardians, often several hundred years old yet forgotten, are the first witnesses of urban expansion and the successive generations that furthered it. Here, the endless and patient geological time scale reminds men how recent they are.
With his last series entitled Rocks and Clouds (2014- 2015), the artist continues his New York research by photographing rocks and emphasizing their sculptural qualities: the same that Olmsted admired a century ago.
“I chose clouds as an opposite to rocks. I thought about ancient time versus contemporary time.”
Epstein’s photographs describe the unpredictable and ephemeral nature of clouds. He focuses on the moving sky and confronts modern architecture at the same time. In sum, this trilogy constitutes an extraordinary exploration of the New York landscape, where nature, technology, and humankind converge.