Summary

Amos Coal Power Plant, Raymond City, West Virginia 2004 is one of five large colour photographs in Tate’s collection from a series entitled American Power. They are all C-prints of the same size, 1143 x 1473 mm, and were printed by the artist in New York in editions of six plus two artist’s proofs. Mitch Epstein is an American photographer who has been working with colour photography since the 1970s. His work is known for its formal complexity and its study of socio-political subjects. American Power is regarded as one of his most important groups of work. It reflects on different ideas of power, and power’s connection to the American landscape, climate and political culture.

Epstein began work on American Power following a commission by the New York Times in 2003 to photograph the town of Cheshire, Ohio. The American Electric Power Company had decided to pay residents of the town to leave so it could expand its power plant there; however, some residents were refusing to accept the money and leave their homes, so Epstein photographed the power station and these people’s houses. The commission led Epstein to carry out a wider project and he worked on the photographs for American Power between 2003 and 2008. He later wrote:

I began to make pictures of the production and consumption of energy in the United States. I wanted to photograph the relationship between American society and the American landscape, and energy was the lynchpin ... For the next five years, I travelled the country making photographs at or near energy production sites: coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, fuel cell, wind, and solar.
(‘Afterword’ in Epstein 2009.)

In time, Epstein’s series began to include other kinds of images of power – for instance, photographs made in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (for example, see Biloxi, Mississippi 2005, Tate P20368), and an image of an electric chair.

As the series grew, and as Epstein travelled the country, he encountered various obstacles to his project. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, local police were often sceptical about the presence of a photographer making images of power stations, and he was arrested several times. ‘With my new project’, he wrote, ‘I am pressed up against the edge of America’s fundamental freedoms. The open society that I took for granted for 33 years is no longer a given.’ (Epstein 2006, p.221).

Although he did not set out as an environmental activist, Epstein’s series indicates a concern with the impact of America’s consumption of energy on the social and geographical landscape. ‘These pictures question the human conquest of nature at any cost’, he wrote, troubled not just by the ‘environmental indifference’ he encountered while making the project, but also by the ‘security excesses’ and ‘corporate avarice’ it revealed (‘Afterword’ in Epstein 2009). He summed up the project saying, ‘With “American Power” I am trying to find and convey truth about how we Americans live, what we want, and what it costs to get it’ (Epstein 2006, p.221). The series is an examination of the energy industry in the first decade of the twenty-first century, of the connections between this industry and American nationalism, and of the consequences of American power for the country’s environment and personal freedoms. The series was published as a book by Steidl in 2009; reviewing the publication for the magazine Artforum, the art historian Michael Fried applauded Epstein’s work for its ‘seamless blend of understated environmental critique, unapologetic mastery of the photographic medium, and formal intelligence’ (Fried 2010, p.43).

Amos Coal Power Plant, Raymond City, West Virginia 2004 shows a group of large chimneys in the background of an image whose foreground is occupied by a small house and its back yard. Epstein centred the composition on the largest of the chimneys, but offset its prominence by drawing attention to a tree which appears in front of it, just off centre. The tree dominates the image and its shadow extends directly towards the camera. Judging from the foliage on the trees to the left and right of this middle tree, the photograph appears to have been taken in early autumn. However, the central tree is dead, with no leaves on it at all, and it is covered with a green fungus. The proximity of the tree and the chimney – which the composition of the photograph emphasises – provokes the question as to whether the tree is a victim of pollution caused by the nearby coal power station. The tree’s well-defined shadow and the bright colours of the foreground indicate that the photograph was shot on a sunny day; however the sky behind is not blue, but is hazy with fumes from the power station. Although it might appear that Epstein is showing nature and the small house as defenceless victims of heavy industry, he complicates this reading. Instead of picturing the backyard as a pure space untarnished by modern industry, he shows how the occupants have made use of all kinds of plastic and metal objects to shape their garden. A red shrub in the foreground picks up the colour of a red car just visible between the house and the yellow barn, a reminder that the house-owners are themselves consumers of the fuel and energy produced by the power station, as much as its victims.

Further reading
Mitch Epstein, Work 1973–2006, Göttingen 2006.
Mitch Epstein, American Power, Göttingen 2009.
Michael Fried, ‘Living in America: Michael Fried on Mitch Epstein’s “American Power”’, Artforum, January 2010, p.43.

Mark Godfrey
September 2010