Photo District News, September 2005
Recreation: American Photographs 1973-1988
by Joanna Lehan
The subjects in these previously unpublished Mitch Epstein photographs may indeed be at leisure, but fun itself is often elusive.
Two bikinied beauties in Miami may have been on a postcard-worthy beach minutes earlier, but Epstein photographs them as they stand barefoot on the dirty wet cement using a payphone between two smoking workmen who stand menacingly close. A young woman, having fainted at a state fair in Texas, reposes like Sleeping Beauty in a circle of concerned on-lookers. A man pulls his car over on Manhattan's West Side Highway to sunbathe amid the litter and passing traffic. Ahh, good times.
The earliest of these pictures was taken in 1973 when Epstein was just 21, and apparently heavily under the influence of Garry Winogrand, with whom he studied at Cooper Union. We see the Winograndian influence in Epstein's attention to his subjects' relation to one another, and the happenstance that brings them together in public spaces. As opposed to Winogrand, however, who worked primarily in black and white, Epstein displays a jaw-dropping talent for color composition, which characterizes his work to this day.
Though the pictures in Recreation are luscious Kodachrome concoctions that now bear the sweetness of nostalgia, they're not exactly sweet. If Epstein does appear to be casting a cynical eye, it must be said that loud Seventies fashions colluded with Epstein's color skills to make the subjects look even goofier. In a picture taken on Madison Avenue in 1973, a circle of women search the pavement for something, creating a clashing riot of wash-and-wear fabrics: pink floral, blue paisley, red check. A blur of candy-colored polka dots dominates the foreground.
He was shooting this early work as Joel Sternfeld and Stephen Shore, each a few years his senior, were crossing America with their large-format cameras. Though Epstein stayed loyal to his 35 millimeter, closer to the street than the sweeping sociological views we see in Sternfeld's American Prospects or Stephen Shore's Uncommon Places, the work in Recreation from the 80s begins to step a bit further back from subjects, taking in the entirety of their remarkable American context. As it happens, both classic books by Shore and Sternfeld were re-released over the last two years, and Epstein's work from that era can now take its place on your bookshelf, bridging the gap between Winogrand's street, and Sternfeld and Shore's big picture.
Recreation, like the reprint of American Prospects, was published by Steidl (in a very similar format) and it is similarly a masterpiece of reproduction. The folks at Steidlville scanned Epstein's Kodachrome slides and made these 11x16-inch reproductions live and breathe. The book was actually released last spring, but was well served by a leisurely summertime perusal. Meanwhile, it continues to reach audiences; an exhibition of new dye-transfer prints from Recreation is on view at Brent Sikkema in Chelsea, starting September 17th, and that promises to be a genuine pleasure.