Summary

Gavin Coal Power Plant, Cheshire, Ohio 2003 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).

Gavin Coal Power Plant, Cheshire, Ohio 2003 shows smoke pouring from two chimneys into a grey sky. The photograph was shot from a position near the bases of the two chimneys pointing upwards to the sky. Epstein framed the image so that only the very tops of the chimneys appear at the upper edge of the image and the smoke appears to pour downwards rather than up into the sky. This illusion emphasises the threatening impact of the billowing clouds of pollution. However, Epstein has created an image that both attracts and repulses. The near symmetrical composition of the image is formally elegant, and the smoke clouds have an abstract beauty. It is possible that at some level the image makes reference to the famous news images of smoke billowing from the twin towers of the World Trade Center following the September 11th attacks, in the aftermath of which American Power was made.

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