No matter how often i go to The Museum of Photography in Antwerp, i never seem to find any fault with their exhibitions. American Documents is no exception. While writing a report about it this afternoon, i realized that one of the body of works i discovered at FoMu deserved its own post.
Mitch Epstein, BP Carson Refinery, California, 2007. From the series: American Power. © Mitch Epstein. Courtesy Gallery Thomas Zander, Cologne
In American Power, Mitch Epstein explores and questions the ‘power’ that lays at the core of the United States. ‘Power’ in this case stands for both strength and energy. Over the course of 5 years he traveled through 25 states to photograph nuclear reactors, oil refineries, mines, rigs, abandoned gas pumps, wind parks, pipelines as well as their environs.
Mitch Epstein, Amos Coal Power Plant, Raymond, West Virginia, 2004. From the series American Power
Mitch Epstein, Amos coal power plant, Winﬁeld, West Virginia 2007. From the series American Power
The project started in 2003 when a magazine commissioned Epstein to photograph a town called Cheshire, Ohio, where American Electric Power Company owns one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the country. In a bid to ward off lawsuits caused by environmental issues with the plant’s emissions, the company decided to buy out all of the residents.
Mitch Epstein, Ocean Warwick oil platform, Dauphine Island, Alabama, 2005. From the series American Power
Mitch Epstein, Poca High School and Amos Coal Power Plant, West Virginia, 2004. From the series American Power
Fascinated by interconnections between energy production, the community living there and consuming that same energy, between industrial corporatism and environmental issues, the photographer decided to broaden his research and investigate how the transformation of the American landscape reflects social order.
Mitch Epstein, Gavin Coal Power Plant, Cheshire, Ohio 2003. From the series American Power
Mitch Epstein, Lake Mead National Park, Nevada 2007. From the series American Power
As he moved from site to site, Epstein quickly attracted the attention of Homeland Security agents. As he explained in an interview with BOMB magazine: Soon, though, I was facing harassment from local and federal law enforcement agents whenever I went to shoot in the vicinity of a corporate energy production site, despite being on public property. This got me pretty angry. I was suddenly subjected to national paranoia, not just reading about it in liberal magazines. Cops or the FBI threw me out of town and inspected my pictures. Their actions were illegal under the Constitution as I knew it, before the Patriot Act. The fury I felt about losing my freedom as an artist fueled a desire to keep working and get the better of the system; it made me want to make pictures that would express the tension and fear I felt contending with that system. So, yes, the project began about energy, but quickly became about power in all its dimensions–not only voltage power, but governmental and corporate power.
Mitch Epstein and Susan Bell, What is American Power? Billboard installed in Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio, April 2010
Mitch Epstein and Susan Bell, What is American Power? Poca High School and Amos Coal Power Plant, West Virginia, 2004 on a billboard in Columbus, OH
Mitch Epstein and Susan Bell, What is American Power? Billboard of BP Carson Refinery, California, 2007 installed in Columbus, Ohio
The project is documented in the book American Power (available on Amazon UK and USA) but Epstein didn’t want to turn his back on the issue right after the publication. Along with his wife editor Susan Bell, he has since been working on a public art project which turns some of his pictures into billboards and transportation posters in order to raise passersby’s awareness on environmental issues. The accompanying website, which reproduces many of his magnificent and bleak photos but also details the environmental facts behind them, invites people to join the discussion about energy production and consumption.