In 2003, photographer Mitch Epstein traveled to Ohio to watch a small town be erased: A nearby power plant had purchased most of the homes there in exchange for families agreeing to leave and to never sue the company for health claims resulting from the plant’s pollution. Epstein was struck by the story—especially because of an 80-year-old woman who refused to move—and decided to travel across the country as an “energy tourist,” documenting other stories he found along the way.
“I wanted to photograph the relationship between American society and the American landscape, and energy was the linchpin,” Epstein writes. He ended up spending five years on the road, visiting everything from oil platforms in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina to coal mines, the Hoover Dam, and solar and wind farms.
He also included images that seem only tangentially related at first, like an electric chair at a West Virginia prison. “It might appear incongruous to this series,” he writes. “Yet, aside from being an icon of electrical power usage, the chair presses the question: For what exactly are we importing all of this oil, burning all of this dirty coal, and drilling into our oceans and our national parks?”
After his five-year odyssey, Epstein published his photographs in a book called American Power, and created a website that maps out each photo. He also collaborated with musician Erik Friedlander to create a live performance: While Epstein shows his images, Friedlander plays the cello.
Friedlander says the music is based on his own visceral reaction to the forms of energy and machinery rather than the photos themselves. "I expected when I got the book to go through and find particular pictures that hit me, but there were so many great pictures—and they’re almost operatic in their density and grandeur—that it was more a feeling I was getting from the elements themselves," he explains.
As people look through the photos, Friedlander hopes they begin to think more about how they use power and where it's coming from. For him, unsurprisingly, the experience transformed how he saw energy.
"About a year into making this series of pictures, I realized that power was like a Russian nesting doll," he writes. "Each time I opened one kind of power, I found another kind inside. When I opened electrical power, I discovered political power; when I opened political power, I discovered corporate power; within corporate was consumer; within consumer was civic; within civic was religious, and so on, one type of power enabling the next.
"I began making these pictures with the idea that an artist lives outside the nesting doll, and simply opens and examines it. But now—while America teeters between collapse and transformation—I see it differently: as an artist, I sit outside, but also within, exerting my own power."
[Images: © Black River Productions, Ltd. / Mitch Epstein.
Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Used with permission. All rights reserved.]