Mitch Epstein: Big Apple trees
Bald Cypress, Northern Boulevard, Queens 2011/Tulip Tree, Alley Pond Park, Queens II, 2011
Together with William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, Mitch Epstein is one of the pioneers of US colour photography. For his series devoted to trees, New York Arbor, he took a completely different approach, photographing nature in his hometown, New York City, in subdued, poetic shades of black and white.
For his large-scale project American Power, the US photographer Mitch Epstein (born in 1952) spent five years travelling around the States, investigating energy production and its impact on the US landscape. Epstein’s images of energy sites and their surrounding area offered us a picture of energy use and its catastrophic consequences for the environment. Following that time-consuming project, he decided to focus on something closer to home. For over a year he photographed single trees in his own city of New York, from English elms to weeping beeches, leaving his home early in the morning with a large-format camera under his arm. The resulting photographs offer us a quite different picture of the bustling city. When there is no focus on people and buildings, it looks as if nature has taken possession of it.
Did you feel the need to do something completely different after American Power?
Mitch Epstein: After finishing that series I was in a kind of challenging place, personally and artistically. It never set out to be a political project, but it politicised me. When I thought about where to go next I didn’t want to take on an overly politicised project, because I’m not interested in making one-dimensional work. I had a long-standing interest in trees, and to be able to work on a series for which I could leave my home in the morning, before dawn, was also very rewarding. It brought me to parts of the city that I had never visited and probably never would have.
Is this project a pause in your career after an emotionally draining series?
Epstein: Yes. American Power was kind of a lament. It was stressful because of the physical and psychological challenges that the work entailed and the restraints that I faced. Nobody was really concerned when I was photographing trees. With American Power I had to be very clever about how to gain access to a place I wanted to take a picture from. I had to work very fast and efficiently. There were many times when my work was called into question and law enforcement forced me to keep on moving. For New York Arbor I had a continuing engagement with a single subject. That was a bit new for me. I would often visit the trees without a camera too. New York Arbor is introspective, but at the same time this work is so much larger than me. Along the way I realised the city had a much more diverse range of tree species than I had realised. Many of them were immigrant trees, non-native trees.
A bit like New York itself?
Epstein: Exactly, so it was a perfect metaphor for the way I had grown to understand New York. It was a pleasant discovery that the place where I had chosen to be does have this multicultural sort of character.
American Elm, Central Park, 2012/Caucasian Wingnut, Brooklyn Botanic Garden II, 2011
At the start of the 20th century Eugène Atget photographed the trees in his own home town, Paris. Is New York Arbor a tribute to Atget?
Epstein: Not exactly. Atget was a very early influence. He’s the kind of photographer that moved me. When I say that I learned early on that it was a good idea to go out and take pictures early in the morning, it was from studying Atget. Because those were the hours that he worked when he didn’t want to contend with the busy streets. And I worked in black and white because I immediately knew that I didn’t want the distraction of contemporary colour. The stop lights and signage in the streets of New York would have caught the attention too much.
Weeping Beech, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 2011/Silver Linden Tree, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, 2011
How did the son of a furniture salesman from Holyoke, Massachusetts, fetch up in New York?
Epstein: Well. Those are questions like “how did those trees end up looking like they do?” It’s not so easily definable. But now that I think about it... After I had done Family Business – the series about my father, his businesses, and my hometown – I understood more clearly that part of the reason I wanted to leave was the alienation that I felt from my father. Maybe in some subconscious way, also, he pushed me away. He inherited a life that he didn’t choose and wished something else for me. My adolescence, moreover, was in a period that was quite tumultuous. We were in the middle of the Vietnam War and it was the beginning of a sort of public consciousness about environmental ills. I was part of a generation that had a lot to rebel against. It was a remarkable time.
Was taking photographs a way of denouncing things and rebelling?
Epstein: It wasn’t that I saw art as a vehicle for rebellion. In fact, the first time I had to think about photography, I was the editor of my high-school yearbook. I went to a very traditional high school. The yearbook was all very formal until that time, but I decided that I wasn’t going to subscribe to that formality. I got myself in a certain amount of trouble. [Laughs] Also, I was way over my head because I didn’t know a thing about photography. I found a couple of people who knew something about it and so I employed their services to take pictures; then I realised I had to take some myself because they couldn’t handle it. So photographing came about by accident to an extent. Maybe when I look at it now, there are a lot of clichés there, but at the time it was my opportunity to focus on my own rebellion. [Laughs] But then, when I look back I’m struck by the fact that even then I was interested in environmental issues. Thirty-five years later that became a central theme in my work. I find that interesting.
Mitch Epstein: New York Arbor • > 30/6, do/je/Th > zo/di/Su 13 > 18.00 & na afspraak/sur rendez-vous/by appointment, Fondation A Stichting, avenue Van Volxemlaan 304, Vorst/Forest, 02-502.38.78, www.fondationastichting.be
Photos: Mitch Epstein, New York Arbor © Black River Productions Ltd, Courtesy Thomas Zander Gallery, Cologne