Mitch Epstein’s latest publication, American Power, is an exploration of the relationships between power – both electrical and politcal – society, and the American landscape. Epstein is one of America’s most illustrious colour photograpers and his work is held in museum around the world; his previous books include Recreation, The City, Work, and the award-winning Family Business.

© Mitch Epstein

© Mitch Epstein. Gavin Coal Power Plant, Cheshire, Ohio, 2003

 

GL: How did the idea of American Power originate?

ME: In 2003 I was commissioned to make pictures for a story about Cheshire, Ohio. The town sat in the shadow of one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the United States — owned by American Electric Power. The attorneys for AEP had allegedly advised the company to buy out all the residents in order to stave off the possibility of future environmental contamination proceedings.I made a couple of long trips there, and was very moved by how the lives that had been lived there were up-ended. In particular I was struck by an elderly woman named Beulah Hern: she could have been anyone’s grandmother, a very amiable woman. But she had gone to the extent of arming herself with a handgun, and mounting surveillance cameras in her window, claiming that she was being harassed by the company because she refused to sell.


© Mitch Epstein

© Mitch Epstein. Beulah ‘Boots’ Hern, Cheshire, Ohio, 2004

After leaving Cheshire, the whole experience and the encounter with Beulah stayed with me. I was struck by the relationship between this small community and the monumental plant nearby that was producing power for the north-east – while reportedly releasing toxic emissions that were ending up in New York state and beyond.

And your interest broadened to include other aspects of energy production?

I became interested in how the subject of energy was critical to both the well-being and degradation of our society. I wanted to make a piece of work that looked in a very direct way – with energy as the linchpin – at the relationship between American landscape and American culture. I did a lot of research on the production of energy and designed intensive trips where I would go to a suitable region for anything from a week to two weeks’ time. I wanted to photograph as widely as I could, and in an informed way.Then – because I was often turned away from production sites for security reasons – I began to look at the consumption of energy, and at the consequences of that production and consumption on the American landscape. So I broadened the initial approach – from looking at the sites themselves to looking at the way in which neighbouring societies conducted their lives. Of course ‘power’ can refer to more than energy…

 

Initially, I had a very specific theme and axis, and I didn’t intend to wrestle with the idea of power in the more general sense of the word. Of course, by naming the project American Power I was purposely implying that there was more to electricity than wiring and lightswitches — there was a political power backdrop. But because of the security hassles I had while making these pictures, I began to think harder about what really was at hand behind the scenes. I found I had no choice but to begin to engage with a broader and more political conception of American power. That became a tremendous challenge, because it‘s such an unwieldy notion. I kept a sort of rein on the huge concept of American power by insisting that the pictures themselves always refer to electrical power – or power as it’s used to fuel society. Once they did that, I felt free to weave into those same pictures suggestions of other kinds of power: the hierarchy of power and the relationship between corporate, governmental, and community structures; and how power has consequences for individuals and the natural world.

 

© Mitch Epstein

© Mitch Epstein. BP Carson Refinery, California, 2007


You have mentioned security issues – what difficulties did you encounter?

 

From the outset I had a lot of problems: I would be photographing on public property, but then be stopped by law enforcement – or threatened by the security from an energy company. The rights that I had come to take for granted, having photographed in the United States for over thirty years, were all of a sudden called into question. So it made me think about the extent to which we as a society were going in order to keep things in place post 9/11…and the price we were paying.

In the book your recount an incident involving the FBI in West Virginia – it reminded me of the famous occasion when Robert Frank was stopped in the South.

 

If you are an outsider visiting somewhere, I think it’s not uncommon to be called into question – I have no issue with being questioned or having to introduce myself. But I had interrogations where I wasn’t trusted as I introduced myself– there was bad faith from the start; so my official documents from, say, the New York Times, and my unblemished record that they called up via my driver’s license didn’t help me. I was told that it was not possible, not acceptable, for me to do what I was doing, that I was undermining security, or causing some kind of threat. With Frank, I think it was a lot about the gap between those who are educated and those who are not; and I think that was what I encountered.

 

The meaningful thing for me was that it ended up changing the way I approached many of my subjects – because I had to ask myself very hard questions about what it meant to commit myself to setting up the camera and making the picture. Using a large format camera I was very visible – I mean it’s a commitment in itself – but I had to question whether or not it would be worth the risk of the whole process of interrogation, of being asked to leave, and of not being able to follow through on something.

 

In a way there was a pervasive anxiety and uncertainty, or stress, that I carried with me which I think infused the pictures with a kind of gravity and tension. My choices were carefully made, and in making them, I was putting myself on the line in a way that I hadn’t really experienced before.

 

Given your interests, it’s not surprising you address various environmental issues in the work…

While I worked on American Power many environmental changes were taking place that were directly connected to the things I was looking at and thinking about. I gave the project a larger scope to be able to respond to these changes and events. For example, I had planned to make a trip along the Gulf of Mexico to visit the oil refineries and then travel around Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. But Hurricane Katrina came along, which became an important opportunity to witness how both industry and community were impacted by the wrath of nature–a wrath that environmentalists believe was more severe due to climate change. Not to mention the government’s ill-planning. Another example was in Alaska, where I followed the course of the pipeline and saw glaciers receding.

 

© Mitch Epstein

© Mitch Epstein. Biloxi, Mississippi, 2005

 

With regard to the timing of this project, do you think power – by which I mean energy production – has been made particularly visible in recent years because of its function within strategic decisions taken by the Bush administration?

American Power is a response to the politics of the Bush-Cheney era: it serves as a testament to that period. I brought the project to a close just as President Obama was elected. We took a huge step backwards under the Bush administration in terms of a lack of respect for the environment and for the American individual as well. Energy did take centre stage in the Bush-Cheney years, and their energy decisions have put us in a really quite vulnerable situation. Their utter refusal to institute any forward thinking, their idea of entitlement, and the perpetuation of the notion that our resources are infinite conflicted with what I saw and what I believe. Our resources are not infinite. And clean coal–sequestering carbon dioxide deep underground is still a fantasy– even if they’re now testing it. I can’t imagine there is no risk of seepage and it is incredibly expensive.

 

The book marks a period during which Americans became more aware that they are not as isolated as they thought they were. The choices we make about our resources will impact on other people and other places. How we employ American power–in every sense of the word–can be either very negative or very positive. Thankfully, we now have a new administration with a new sense of possibility.

 

You have written that you don’t consciously think of politics when photographing, but do you think it’s fair to say this is your most political body of work?

 

Well, I don’t think consciously about anything when I‘m taking pictures – in a way, I’m trying to tap into my unconscious. But to answer your question, yes – I do think it’s my most political work…but not in a didactic sense, at least I hope not. In the same way that I worked hard at avoiding sentimentality when photographing my father and family (for Family Business), I made a concerted effort not to succumb to the contrivances of political art.

 

But how couldn’t it be political when I was told on numerous occasions that I was not allowed to take pictures when I was constitutionally within my rights to do so? Having had experiences like that, and having asked officially to photograph in thirty or forty different coal mines – only to be rejected – until in the end I gained access for no more than two hours…this opaqueness of an entire industry that we citizens pay for and rely on becomes political.

 

© Mitch Epstein

© Mitch Epstein. Department of Energy Headquarters, Washington, D.C. 2007

 

It becomes political when you’re American and you visit your Department of Energy only to find a nuclear warhead on display. It’s troubling because it’s exactly what we are asking, and insisting, that others do not do: mix domestic and military nuclear power.

 

Photography allows and encourages me to make pictures that are multi-tiered. The challenge for me is to create layers in one photograph. I am not interested in playing only a single note. At their best, these layered pictures point to the contradictions at play in the world.

Guy Lane


American Power144 pages, 64 colour plates

£45Published by Steidl

Mitch Epstein will appear in conversation with David Chandler, Photographers’ Gallery, London, Friday November 13, 2009