Mitch Epstein

Art on Paper, Museum & Gallery Reviews, January 2000
The City

By Jean Dykstra

This small autumn exhibition featured nine large C-prints (all 40x50 in.), each a closely observed portrait of New York City and its occasionally disconnected, sometimes vulnerable residents. Mitch Epstein, whose color photographs of Vietnam were collected in the well-received 1996 Vietnam: A book of Changes (and whose cinematography was seen in the films Mississippi Masala and Salaam Bombay! ), has turned his eye on his own city with the same acuity and confident grasp of color and composition shown in his earlier work. In a photograph from 1998 (they're all untitled, from 1997 or 1998), an escalator carrying a lone man in a gray suit, who looks away form the camera, cuts diagonally across a bright, tomato-red wall, spitting the frame in two triangular halves. In a 1997 image, a neatly folded gray suit jacket lies atop a lush green hedge; off in the distance and out of focus is the city's gray skyline, looking hazy and undefined.

Kin to William Eggleston's deadpan portrayals of the South as well as Philip Lorca diCorcia's dramatically lit freeze-frame moments of harried urban pedestrians, Epstein's work is part documentary, part diary, with a nod toward the city's little incongruities and absurdities (note the formal portrait of the slightly grungy Easter bunny sitting in front of a Mickey and Minnie Mouse mural). If his photographs are a little detached, they are not without affection. There's a man in a white polo shirt, seen through a scratched and dusty pane of glass, smiling faintly and holding a small black dog; a tall blonde in dark glasses and a Henri Bendel bag, looking mildly impatient, who has stopped along a busy sidewalk to give a light to a guy in a baseball cap. Then there is the family—a mother, her two daughters and teenage son, looking cool—paused on a rain-slicked street under a huge Calvin Klein billboard featuring a model in his underwear. They all gaze in different directions (one daughter absentmindedly twirls her skirt), oblivious to the half-naked model towering above them. A shot of the old Empire Theater, now closed, seen through a grimy upper-floor window across the street, is one of the most straightforward images in the show—a study in composition, architectural details, and decay. The words "Clean and Neat," now faded and chipped, were long ago painted on the outside of the window, although the room, the window, the theater, and the street below, are anything but. Along with the other images in this show, it's like a perfectly crafted paragraph lifted from an oblique short story.