Based in New York, Mitch Epstein was a fine art color photography pioneer in the 1970s, and he has continued to work in that medium in the decades since, with a body of new work, Rocks and Clouds, opening most recently in 2017. He has published ten books of photography, notably American Power (2009) and Family Business (2003), and has worked as director, cinematographer, and production designer on feature films, including Dad, Salaam Bombay!, and Mississippi Masala. The recipient of awards such as the Prix Pictet, the Berlin Prize in Arts and Letters, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Epstein’s photographs are found in numerous major museum collections, among them The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; and the Tate Modern, London.
Epstein’s photographs in Southbound are drawn from his American Power series, which was also produced as a theatrical performance, combining projected photographs, archival material, video, music, and storytelling. American Power represents Epstein’s examination of the production and use of energy in the United States and our somewhat uncomfortable cohabitation with the magnitude of that power. These landscape photographs, made primarily at sites of energy production, range across the South, from Louisiana to Florida to West Virginia. They speak to energy sources at the heart of the ongoing transformation of our culture from the nineteenth century onward—coal, petroleum, and nuclear—and draw a line under the interplay of our need for power and forces beyond our control as in his images from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi and Alabama. A dynamic example is Ocean Warwick Oil Platform, Dauphin Island, Alabama (2005), in which we see a petroleum drilling rig blown a staggering sixty miles across the Gulf of Mexico by Katrina, washed up and lying in ruins along the Alabama coastline.
Epstein’s images would pull us deep into these landscapes to leave us wondering. The stately live oaks arrayed along a recently mowed field might have marked a grand avenue to a plantation home once upon a time, yet now they lead instead to a sunlit industrial colossus, in his photograph titled Chalmette Oil Refinery, New Orleans, Louisiana II (2007). Look closely and a fence closes off access; fences parallel the trees, too. Along one side there are seemingly endless coils of razor wire, likely denoting a prison, unsurprising in the state that incarcerates more of its population than any other, in the region that does likewise, in the country with the highest rates of incarceration in the developed world. The disproportionate incarceration rates for African Americans that characterize the prison industrial complex in the United States pull those live oaks into stark relief and we are left perturbed at an image that, at first blush, was so very inviting.
Many photographers made images along the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Epstein’s photographs from that time connect perhaps most readily with the work of fellow Southbound artists Daniel Beltrá, Stacy Kranitz, and Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, who also focus on fragile environments and destructive forces. The mattress impaled on a tree in Epstein’s photograph titled Biloxi, Mississippi (2005) encapsulates the immense power of Hurricane Katrina every bit as effectively as does his depiction of the destroyed Ocean Warwick oil platform. For all their beauty, Epstein’s photographs underline the immensity of the natural and man-made power that they showcase.