The New York Times, March 30, 2007
Mitch Epstein: American Power
Sikkema Jenkins & Company
530 West 22nd Street, Chelsea
Through April 7
Mitch Epstein's "American Power" photographs are a result of what he calls in an artist's statement an "energy tourism" journey through America's fossil fuel, nuclear and green energy "hot spots." The project was prompted by the evacuation of an Ohio town in the wake of environmental contamination.
Mr. Epstein's odyssey was transformed by two things: the Patriot Act and Hurricane Katrina. Pictures of nuclear reactors looming over exurban neighborhoods or of a California oil refinery shot from an artfully respectful distance hint at Mr. EpsteinŐs trials photographing energy sources in post-9/11 America. ("If you were Muslim, you'd be cuffed and taken in for questioning," he quotes an F.B.I. agent in West Virginia telling him.)
Alongside images of power plants, a defunct gas station in Texas and a woman wading in the water above Niagara Falls are chilling images of a hurricane-crippled oil rig off the coast of Alabama and a tree in Biloxi ornamented with debris.
What is interesting, beyond the haunting, complicated beauty and precision of these images, is Mr. Epstein's ability to merge what have long been considered opposing terms: photo-conceptualism and so-called documentary photography. He utilizes the supersize scale and saturated color of conceptualism, and his odd, implied narratives strongly recall the work of artists like Jeff Wall. Mr. Epstein's images also share with Mr. Wall's a look that is at once real and unreal - or, as people who witness a catastrophe say, "surreal."
Yet Mr. Epstein functions like an old-school "documentary style" (to use Walker Evans's term) photographer, publishing his images in essay and book formats and heading out into the world to capture preexisting phenomena rather than creating (or recreating) them in his studio.
The difference, in this body of work, is that Mr. Epstein's images are often culled from a category of facts we would rather leave in the realm of fiction.