BP Carson Refinery, California 2007 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).
BP Carson Refinery, California 2007 shows a huge power station in the centre of the image, framed by a road in the foreground and overhanging trees in each of the top corners. A gigantic American stars and stripes flag is attached to the side of the refinery. The flag acts as a reminder of the links between the energy industry and American identity and nationalism which flourished in the wake of the September 11th attacks. For reasons of ventilation the flag is punctured at regular intervals, paradoxically suggesting an unwitting image of American vulnerability. The road in the foreground, with its shrubbery that seems to cling to life in the face of the industrial environment, is a reminder of the automobile industry which relies on the refinery’s product – petroleum.
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.