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The Hour of Power

October 3, 2009

From the forthcoming book, American Power, by Mitch Epstein

Holyoke born Mitch Epstein has a new book coming out this month. American Power is a clear eyed visual study of the what, where and how our country is powered. Here’s a quote from Joerg Colbergs review, “Photographically, American Power is nothing but the product of an artist at the prime of his own, yes, artistic power, large-format photography at its finest. It is hard to imagine the energy it must have cost Epstein to produce the different photographs, but the run-ins with law enforcement officials do not seem to have had any impact on the quality of the work.”

Joerg does such an erudite job of reviewing the book that I don’t have to say more about Mitch’s achievement. For my student’s benefit, I think it is more important to alert them to Mitch’s previous book- Family Business. This highly personal collection of pictures created in Holyoke won Epstein many awards, including the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship.

From Family Business by Mitch Epstein

From Family Business by Mitch Epstein

The book presents the story of Mitch’s father. To quote Mitch, “Crucial to his story is that of Holyoke itself. The commercial center died in the 70s, its customers gone to the new supermall. Holyoke became a crack-riddled, arson-wrought town. A recent wave of immigrants turned the formerly “white” downtown Hispanic. The culture clash resonates in the relationship between my Jewish American father and his Puerto Rican tenants and employees.”

By now Holyoke’s 21st Century story is unfolding with a new cast of characters. To better understand what we see as we walk the streets of Holyoke today, I implore students to check out these links and pick-up the book. It is a page turner with great writing and photography.

Now, to discover our personal “hour of power” I want to look at the two pictures above. The tenement buildings in Holyoke were photographed when the sun was low, at sunrise or sunset. The light feathers across the buildings to give their bricks a deep, dark texture. In a sense, the light suggests a romantic view that is quickly undercut by the boarded up windows. I think the balance of sweeping light over the emptiness of the whole scene is the key to the mournful demeanor of the picture.

The low light of the power plant picture (above) seems to be from an early morning exposure. The camera faces the dawn creating an almost godlike glow. The effect is also romantic, except the romance is with the power generating station. Again, Mitch creates a fresh response from the viewer by challenging our expectations.

This acknowledgement of  “a certain slant of light” is Mitch’s nod to 20th Century realism within a contemporary context. Here’s a painting from 1930.

Early Morning Light, 1930, Edward Hopper

Early Morning Light, 1930, Edward Hopper

In the later part of the 20th Century, Stephen Shore utilized this light in his pioneering color photography:

Holden Street, North Adams, 1974, Stephen Shore

Holden Street, North Adams, 1974, Stephen Shore

By Stephen Shore

Chevron, By Stephen Shore

Shore’s pictures celebrate the beauty in the everyday. Shore’s Chevron from the 1970s leads to Mitch Eptein’s studies of beauty in what could be construed as ugly. There are lots of examples of ugly beauty in 20th Century art. I want to move onto one more example of the power of light in Mitch’s work.

From American Power by Mitch Epstein

From American Power by Mitch Epstein

My students are prone to use the weather as an excuse. They often say they can’t photograph because the sun isn’t out. Ever since the publication of Robert Frank’s seminal book, The Americans, an overcast day has been the choice time to photograph with a bite. An overcast, or rainy, sky equals bleakness. Mitch Epstein’s power plant above would send a different message if it was framed by puffy clouds in a blue sky. As it is, the American Flag seems riddled with bullet holes.

Probably the greatest photographer of the American Flag is Robert Frank. I won’t show any of his flag masterpieces, but please read the spectacular New Yorker review of his current show on The Americans now in New York.

Butte, Montana, 1956, by Robert Frank

Butte, Montana, 1956, by Robert Frank

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