Research point: Mitch Epstein and Fay Godwin

The New Topographics exhibition of 1975, and particularly the work of Robert Adams, has influenced ‘many other photographers who have campaigned around environmental issues’ (Creative Arts Today, page 173), and OCA suggests to investigate two projects in this area:

Mitch Epstein’s American Power (2003 onwards)
Poca High School and Amos Coal Power Plant, West Virginia 2004

Mitch Epstein, Poca High School and Amos Coal Power Plant, West Virginia 2004, from mitchepstein.net

‘American Power examines how energy is produced and used in the American landscape, and how energy influences American lives. Made on forays to production sites and their environs, these pictures question the power of nature, government, corporations, and mass consumption—as well as the power of looking—in the United States.’ (Mitch Epstein website)

The artist’s website documents his work and publications so far, and includes an exhaustive list of links to reviews and essays.

In that section I found an interview with him by William Carroll published in Places Journal, December 2013 and focusing on the theatrical performance based on American Power. After being born in 2003 as a photographic project,  American Power has since taken many forms: exhibitions, books, billboards, a website, and also this theatrical performance. The image below, as the caption says, is from the stage production of the project made in cooperation with musician and composer Erik Friedlander and the interview was registered the week after the 2013 performance.

American Power, performance by Mitch Epstein and Erik Friedlander, 2013, William and Nadine McGuire Theater at the Walker Art Center. [Photo by Greg Beckel, © Walker Art]

I find Epstein’s way of working with series of photographs within the frame of a strong and ambitious project really engaging. As he explains in his website he concentrated first on the production of energy in the United States and its impact on landscape and people’s lives and then extended his analysis to other forms of power – not only to produce energy, but to the other ways in which the political, corporate and mass consumption powers can exert influence on society at large.

I think that the juxtaposition of industrial sites and daily life is forcefully compelling: together they make such an interesting story, much more so than separately. I read that Epstein is very critic of how power in its various forms negatively affects American lives, but curiously his photographs, with its pleasant colours and domestic surroundings, convey to me the feeling that life is not all that bad also in a problematic environment, that people have their personal ways to cope with changes and keep on with their daily activities in all conditions with natural resilience.

My only objection is that the project about power is so vast that it becomes almost undefined at the end and can include practically everything, but plausibly the artist’s intention was exactly to engage in an open-ended project to show how the network of power really extends to all aspects of our lives.

Fay Godwin’s Our Forbidden Land (1990)
GODWIN_2

Fay Godwin, image from The Forbidden Land, at: https://paulwalshphotographyblog.wordpress/2013/06/27/forbidden-land/

Fay Godwin’s work The Forbidden Land was also born as a project having political and social meaning. Like the title implies, her photographs were polemically concerned with the destruction of English countryside and the requisition of it by the authorities and the private owners, with more and more land subtracted from the public. So it fundamentally questions the ownership of the land and the right to it for the common citizens. The book includes 120 black and white photographs and accompanying texts by Fay Godwin.

I have looked at her images online which are not only important but also deeply beautiful and moving: they are empty of people and there is in them a feeling of solitude and desolation, a nostalgia for a disappearing countryside and with it for a way of life that is getting lost. I think that there is nothing sentimental in her photographs, and little hope too, but at the same time there is in them also a profound love and deeply felt sensitivity for nature. I read that she was a strong advocate of organic food and of the environment and that she campaigned against the fencing off of land and its preservation.

Bibliography

Mitch Epstein’s website: http://mitchepstein.net/home (Accessed 25/05/2017)

American Power: Live (2013) In: https://placesjournal.org December 2013 [online] At: https://placesjournal.org/article/american-power-live/ (Accessed 25/05/2017)

Fay Godwin’s website: http://www.faygodwin.com/ (Accessed 30/05/2017)

Drabble, M. (2011) ‘Fay Godwin at the National Media Museum’ In: http://www.theguardian.com 8/01/2011 At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jan/08/margaret-drabble-fay-godwin (Accessed 30/05/2017)

Clark, D. (2010) ‘Fay Godwin 1931-2005 – Iconic Photographer’ In: http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk 9/11/2010 At: http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk/technique/fay-godwin-1931-2005-iconic-photographer-18907 (Accessed 30/05/2017)

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