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America'spower but not glory; Mitch Epstein'sfirst UKsolo show will launch the Open EyeGallery'snew home, Laura Davis reports.

THERE'S an uncomfortable contradiction in Mitch Epstein's American Power series of photographs which depict generating stations, cooling towers, reactors and dams across the US.

The images seem to celebrate these masculine structures as totems of man's ability to harness nature for his own, selfish purpose - but Epstein's reason for recording these masculine structures is quite the opposite.

His American Power series will be the launch exhibition of the Open Eye Gallery's new Mann Island home, which opens next Friday.

The large-scale pictures on display are the result of his expeditions to 25 states over six years, but the project has its origins in a single small town in Ohio, which Epstein documented in 2003 after it was compulsory purchased by the American Electric Power company.

His "odyssey", as he describes it, did not make him popular in post-9/11 America, where a man taking photographs of power stations was considered a major breach of security.

In West Virginia, events took a sinister turn. "The first time I went there I was questionned heavily by law enforcement leading up to an interrogation by the FBI," reveals Epstein, whose Open Eye exhibition will be his first solo show.

He returned two years later to record mountain top removal -a mining technique that involves blasting the summit of a mountain with explosives to reveal the coal seams -and the reception was unexpectedly far less frosty.

"I wrote to the public relations department of the American Electric plant there and to my surprise was welcomed to make a for mal visit," he explains.

"When I got there the gentleman had one of my books, Recreation, on his desk and said he was a big fan of my work and would I sign it for him. It was a total surprise.

"Even though I was shut out and frustrated by the odyssey I had to move through, often being told I couldn't take pictures, in the end I persisted and surprising things sometimes happened."

Observing Epstein's images is intended to be "a kind of layered experience" as they are both a testimony to achievement and a damning vision of the American Dream gone awry.

"I hope Open Eye visitors are moved and in some way unnerved by them - that's what I ask of myself from the work - and also excited by them," he says.

He mainly shot with an 8x10in for mat camera, making them a technical accomplishment as well as an artistic one.

Epstein sees his pictures as an extension of the work of 19th century US photographers such as Carleton Watkins or Eadweard J Muybridge and Timothy O'Sullivan.

"I'm working not just with a set of themes but also within the larger construct of the history of photography," he explains.

His images of the American West - including a dramatic view of the Colorado River as it meets the Hoover Dam, in particular support his argument.

"When I'm out in this extraordinary, monumental, otherworldly landscape I'm also thinking about the photographers in the 19th century who traversed that landscape under incredibly adverse conditions and made pictures that were both in awe of and monumentalised that landscape," he explains.

"My pictures still contain some of that awe but at the same time they're looking into the way in which we have injected ourselves and left something of ourselves in that landscape."

[bar] MITCH EPSTEIN - American Power is at the Open Eye Gallery from November 5 to December 23.


Mitch Epstein's portrait of Martha Murphy and Charlie Biggs, Pass Christian, Mississippi, 2005, above, and, l e f t , Las Vegas, Nevada, 2007 Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, Nevada/Arizona, 2007, top The Stars and Stripes provides dramatic colour in Mitch Epstein'simage of the BPCarson Refinery, California, 2007; cover, Open Eye director Patrick Henry and curator Karen Newman unveil one of Epstein''s prints Picture: COLIN LANE/TMCL261011OPENEYE-2
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Oct 28, 2011
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