Earlier this decade, prompted by a lawsuit his father was facing, photographer Mitch Epstein returned to his western Massachusetts hometown. Holyoke had become an unfamiliar landscape in the years since he had left as a young man, so he decided to document the changed circumstances of his parents’ lives. The resultant photographs and video installations in the series “Family Business” can be understood as an attempt to render visual the tectonic social and economic shifts the United States has undergone since midcentury. American Power, Epstein’s new book, attempts something similar, but on a much broader scale. He began with a straightforward if ambitious premise—to depict our nation’s varied energy infrastructure—but quickly expanded his remit to include several notions of power that course through American society as invisibly as does electricity through the national grid. Cooling towers and reactors factor in many of the images, yet each kind of power—not only literal, but also political, economic, and the power of nature—impacts upon the others. All are scrutinized in the dozens of color photographs Epstein took in twenty-five states over the last six years. He has suggested that this book is a “testament to and investigation of the Bush-Cheney era,” but rather than revel in anger or anguish, the measured, elegantly composed photographs admit complex readings. What results is a picture of America both enormously blessed and seemingly jeopardizing its own well-being.
I came away with a renewed awareness of our society’s class divisions, which are a subtext that gives the book a plangent tone. Half of the people who appear in these photos are seen defending the interests of energy corporations or enjoying their status as reckless consumers in a land of material abundance. Epstein has crafted a lovely full-length portrait of a young woman, automatic rifle slung over her shoulder, working at the Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Plant in Mississippi, as well as an unaffected image of logo-plastered father-and-son dirt bikers in Midland, Texas. Yet the other half suffers unduly from being disempowered. Witness the residents of Raymond City and Poca, West Virginia, whose lives play out beneath the white smoke rising from the Amos Coal Power Plant, or those who are baptized in or fish from California and Florida waters potentially fouled by the conspicuous power plants hovering in the distance. Fences predominate in the book’s many unpopulated images, testament not only to the partition between the powerful and the weak, but also to the difficulties Epstein faced in trying to uncover this submerged current. Other photographers working in this vein, including Alex Maclean, Michael Light, and Emmet Gowin, often shoot their pictures from the air. Epstein, however, stays resolutely on the ground. It mustn’t have been easy to portray a sense of a nation and its relationship to power in transition, but it was worth the effort.
Brian Sholis is a writer and editor living in New York.