Mitch Epstein American Power
In 2003, I was asked to photograph the erasure of a small town in Ohio. In Cheshire, houses were being razed by the hour and the streets were nearly emptied of human life. American Electric Power, one of the world’s largest utility companies, had bought out the town and instituted a gag order after increasing complaints that AEP’s plant had contaminated the health of Cheshire’s citizens. I was not the same after this trip.
The cost of growth, with its implicit energy demands, had become terrifyingly vivid. I had seen first-hand the grave results of fossil fuel production on human life and our ecosystem. To further examine the role of energy in the United States, I embarked on a five-year-long, twenty-five-state project called American Power. I photographed a consumerist society inured to the consequences of unbridled consumption. Many living in the shadows of power plants despaired their polluted water and air, but did not have the economic resources to relocate. Growth no longer meant progress, but self-destruction.
I wanted to photograph the dangerous trinity of corporate power, consumerist advertising and citizens who believe the old American dream that improving your lot means having more and using more. American Power is an active response to the American Dream gone haywire. My project focuses on the United States not only because I am American; but because the U.S. has exported its model of unrestricted growth around the world in the form of mass consumerism, corporatism and sprawl. We need to now export a revised model of growth, a revised American Dream. I included pictures in American Power of renewable energy – wind, biotech and solar – to show that a healthier, more economical and compassionate way of life is possible. American Power bears witness to the cost of growth and it asks viewers to consider the landscape they have created–and take responsibility for it.
After the project was finished, exhibited, and published as a book, I looked for a way to disseminate this work beyond the art world. I created an interactive public art project with my wife, writer Susan Bell, that used billboards in Ohio and a website (whatisamericanpower.com) to share American Power more widely.
About the author
1952, Massachusetts, United States
New York, United States
Mitch Epstein is a filmmaker and photographer. He studied at the Cooper Union, New York, Rhode Island School of Design and Union College, New York. After a time spent working abroad, Epstein returned to America and began photographing his native country. His photographs are included in numerous museum collections, including those of New York’s The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Epstein’s seven books include the retrospective monograph, Mitch Epstein: Work (2006), Recreation: American Photographs 1973–1988 (2005) and Family Business (2003), which received the 2004 Kraszna-Krausz Photography Book Award.
The American Academy in Berlin awarded Epstein the Guna S. Mundheim Berlin Prize in the Visual Arts (2008). Other prizes include a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003. Epstein has also worked as a director, cinematographer and production designer on several films, including Dad, Salaam Bombay! and Mississippi Masala.
Mitch Epstein, American Power, 2003-2008
Christian Als, Kibera - The Shadow City, 2007-2008
Edward Burtynsky, Oil, 1999-2009
Stéphane Couturier, Melting Point, 2005
Chris Jordan, Midway: Message from the Gyre, 2009-2010
Yeondoo Jung, Evergreen Tower, 2001
Vera Lutter, Body of Work, 1997-2006
Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo, The Hell of Copper, 2008
Taryn Simon, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, 2004-2007
Thomas Struth, Paradise, 1998-2006
Guy Tillim, Petros Village, 2006
Michael Wolf, Architecture of Density, 2005-2009