Mitch Epstein’s Recreation, American Photographs 1973-1988 captures a time when we were more naïve if not more innocent. This theme is encapsulated in Plate 41: “Miami Beach II” in which we see two bikini-clad pubescent girls making a phone call while two adult men leer at their flesh. It’s an era when our “leisure expectations” were not so great and theme parks on the scale of Walt Disney World, for example, were only just being created – it opened in 1971 – leaving us largely to make our own entertainment.

Epstein’s reflection on the America he photographed is one of loss, a lament for a less cynical epoch than the one in which we live today. He has said of Recreation, “To me, the whole project represents the loss of something. It shows a time when we were more optimistic. There was a sense of freedom and the camera was less intrusive.”

Perforce it was also a time of greater individuality with less ovine tendencies to have and to own the latest gizmo. But for all the individuality captured by Epstein there’s a sense of incongruity evident too. For example, Plate 9: “Funeral Home Opening”. An unattended young girl, approximately five years old, is standing in front of an open – though empty – coffin. Is this her parents’ idea of recreation circa 1974 or is symptomatic of a time when children were less cosseted, treated as adults at a younger age?

Its strangeness aside, the image reveals Epstein’s eye for composition and his ability at once both to appreciate and capture the bigger picture. The young girl is wearing pink tights and a dress of the same hue as the satin brocade lining the inside of the open coffin, alluding to life’s all too short journey from birth to death. The overall effect renders one not only intrigued and perplexed, but also inspired by Epstein’s aptitude and profound insight.

The image’s thoughtfulness is one of 66 similarly well-conceived and executed photographs reproduced here, each one a sumptuous tableau measuring 43 x 28cm. Presented as a single image on every right hand page (the left-hand page is blank except for a discreetly placed composition title) the reproduction quality is notable, doing justice to what is a significant body of work that says as much about how we like our leisure time today as it does about how we took our recreation in the ’70s and ’80s. In Epstein’s own words: “It is about the pursuit of pleasure before pleasure was commodified. Now everything is so packaged.”         

Gordon Miller