Mitch Epstein’s most recent New York exhibition was Property Rights at Sikkema Jenkins last fall. That show led Andrea Scott of The New Yorker to observe that Epstein “makes headline-grabbing subjects—immigration, federal-land protections that have come under threat or already been rolled back, and other abuses of American power—feel at once urgent and timeless.” Since then Epstein has published a major new book, Sunshine Hotel (Steidl 2019), a retrospective look at five decades of work that demonstrates even more dramatically than any single exhibition could the breadth and depth of his questioning of the troubled beauty of our shared and divided histories. On the occasion of its publication, I met with the photographer at his Lower East Side studio to discuss the book and how it reflects the history of his engagement with photography, and with his country.
Barry Schwabsky (Rail): Let’s talk about Sunshine Hotel. The book doesn’t follow a chronological or thematic thread, but it begins and ends at Standing Rock, which is a name that a few years ago wouldn’t have meant anything to me—
Mitch Epstein: Yea. You or me.
Rail: And now it’s a tremendously loaded subject. But first I want to ask about who you are and how you got to this place.
Epstein: It’s hard to make such a long story short. I’m an American artist born into a Jewish American family in a suburban town in New England, where I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel stifled. I left as soon as I could. At 15-years-old, I convinced my parents to send me to boarding school. But the school was stifling in a different way. I was formed by my strong reactions against the conformity of suburbia and the conservatism and rigidity of my school.
I studied art and photography in college, but I was restless and took off before graduating to make work with a hand-held camera crisscrossing the United States in the 1970s. For many reasons, I then spent a great deal of time outside the country making work abroad. When I came back, I had a fresh perspective on the United States, and a new kind of commitment to focusing as an artist on my own country. Sunshine Hotel is the culmination of my questioning and critique of America, from those first pictures I made in the ’80s up through my recent work at Standing Rock.
Since the early ’90s, I've been making projects that have a conceptual structure to give me some limits and direction, so I’m not just out in the world making random pictures. A project usually starts with some experience I have that moves or unnerves me, which leads me to an idea, which I set out to investigate photographically. But I use this method more as a starting point, and then I relax my intentions and respond to the situations I find myself in.
I come out of a certain tradition of photography, having studied in my 20s with Garry Winogrand, but I’ve always worked to extend the boundaries of that tradition; I’ve worked to continually reinvent my own practice by changing my tools and process on a frequent basis.
I’ve created these self-contained bodies of work over the last 30 years—Vietnam: A Book of Changes, The City, Family Business, American Power, New York Arbor, Rocks and Clouds, and, currently, Property Rights. Sunshine Hotel is different. I culled my American pictures from the past 50 years, disregarding the projects to which the pictures belonged. It is not a retrospective catalog of greatest hits, though. Sunshine Hotel mixes up my work from different times and places to form a pretty wild American story that goes beyond my organizing strictures.
Rail: There are different kinds of strictures. An exhibition is one kind of thing and a book is another. I think for me, having come to photography you could say, via painting, at first I became interested in the individual, self-contained photographic frame, and everything that happened inside it. Lately I've become much more interested in books and how they allow for a different, more dispersed way of creating meaning and form that has more to do with poetry and the essay than with painting, even though it’s still visual.
Epstein: In every project, each picture is first and foremost a single, self-sustaining work with a full and complex meaning of its own. At the same time, once you have multiple images, these images have a dialogue with each other. It’s possible to build dispersed meaning by how you sequence and juxtapose individual photographs in a book. This is one of the reasons books are a perfect container for my projects. They allow me to tell the larger story of a series, which is not possible in a single picture. Often the stories I tell are abstract and elliptical; sometimes, like with American Power, they are more direct. I can rarely fully control the exhibitions of my work in galleries and museums, which have their curatorial agendas—economic, political, spatial etc. Books enable me to be an author, they are…
Rail: They’re the space itself.
Epstein: Exactly. With Sunshine Hotel the space was vast—the book is physically big, and its psychic and creative landscapes are big, too. I selected 175 photographs from multiple projects that would tell the American story and gestalt as I saw and felt them. I wanted to show America as a place and an idea. I like what a German critic called the book: a psychogram of a nation.
Rail: I think that the earliest pictures in the book were from 1973?
Epstein: There’re a couple from 1969—two black and white pictures that I took in my hometown in Massachusetts, and I included them because they fit.
Rail: Did you already see yourself as a sort of photographer then, as a teenager, or just someone who had a camera?
Epstein: I was sort of forced into photography, actually. In 1969–70, I took on the role of editing my high school yearbook. I was anti-authority and wanted to wreak havoc with the conventional yearbook format. I enlisted my staff to make pictures for it, but I wasn’t getting what I wanted, which was to show a whole environment and culture. I wanted pictures that reflected the tumult of the times. We were at the height of the Vietnam War, racism defined the decade, and Earth Day was established. I thought the yearbook should cover these subjects, not just football. I did an independent study, learned the basics, and started to make the pictures I wasn’t getting from others.
But it wasn’t like I knew immediately that this was what I wanted to do forever. I moved to New York in 1972 to study at Cooper Union with Garry Winogrand. I had transferred from Rhode Island School of Design. Although many superb artists studied at RISD, I resisted the preciousness around art there, the artsy atmosphere. Garry was an antidote to that. Or should I call him an exorcist? He banished any pretentious ideas in my head about what art was and what artists should do. By the end of my first year at Cooper, I felt grounded in photography and couldn’t imagine myself doing anything other than making pictures.
Rail: Can you tell me more about Winogrand’s method as a teacher? Some of the things that might have affected you?
Epstein: He taught through his silences. He refused to reassure you. He wanted to get you to think for yourself, see for yourself. He never talked about meaning. It was enough for him to say, “there is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described.” Just as important to me was how Garry set an example of dedication. I learned so much about what it meant to live an artist’s life by watching him. He was obsessive. Once he came into class the day after a ball at the Metropolitan Museum, and like a satisfied athlete who knew he’d played the game hard, he said, “Well, I shot 35 rolls of film last night.” I don’t shoot the prodigious quantities of film that Garry did. But my practice of photography has always been and still is—even when I use an 8X10— very athletic. There’s a nimbleness and stamina needed. I learned this from Garry.
It was in those long, excruciating silences of his so-called crits, when a lot of boring black and white work was up on the wall, that a few of us in class asked if we could shoot in color.
Rail: Were you aware of Eggleston and the other pioneers of American color photography in the beginning or not really?
Epstein: Not in the very beginning. Color photography as an art form was uncharted at the time, which was exciting. Until then, it had primarily been used in advertising and family snapshots and most art photographers rejected it as too commercial and technically unwieldy. Soon after we started using color in class, Garry invited Eggleston to show two carousels of slides, which would become the legendary William Eggleston’s Guide. To be honest, initially the pictures eluded me. Eggleston would become a huge influence, but I was too young to understand his work when I first saw it.
I was eager to look at more color art photography, but there was very little I could find—it was largely unpublished and not exhibited—so instead I turned to painting and film. My early influences were wide-ranging, and included Hopper and Matisse, Antonioni and Fassbinder, as well as Eggleston.
Rail: That move from black-and-white to color photography—to me, the difference is between a space that’s rendered through tone and in which there are objects that are dimensional, whereas the color photography that I see starting in the ’70s is all about surface rather than volume. Things are much more on a plane—no matter where they are in the depicted space, on the surface of the photograph they’re all kind of competing for the front. Do you see it like that?
Epstein: Not entirely. Yes, color is an additional element that can be potentially more about surfaces, as you describe. There’s some truth to this, which can be the danger or trap of color. You have to find a way to make it work for you. Eggleston masterfully emphasizes color surfaces. I, on the other hand, was taught by Winogrand to forget that I had color film in my camera and shoot as if it were black and white. This has led me to incorporate color as one of many elements; it does not always dominate. In my pictures, color is integral to the form and content, and doesn’t diminish spatial dimensionality. So I don’t think black and white is the only way to create a sculptural, dimensional photograph.
Rail: So what makes you decide that for a certain project or group of images you want to set color aside?
Epstein: In 2011–12, I made New York Arbor, a series of photographs, portraits really, of singular trees in New York City. I wanted to photograph how trees thrived in the city. I had to invert the usual approach to city photography, where people and architecture take prominence and nature recedes as background. For me, the trees were the central subjects; they had to come forward in the frame, yet not be isolated from their surroundings. The red hydrant, yellow taxi, bright green parka etc. would be distractions from the trees that I wanted to bring forward in this way. So, I decided to shoot in black and white. It served a particular formal conceit that I was after.
Every project has its own terms and conditions and demands. I’m always thinking about how to put myself in places that aren’t very comfortable, where I’m looking at something that’s unfamiliar and that I don’t know very much about.
My current project, Property Rights, is a good example. It began with a trip to Standing Rock. I had never made pictures on a reservation before or spent time with Native American elders. The point is always to break my own habits. And to learn.
With Sunshine Hotel, I abandoned my previous project-bound bookmaking method to mix together five decades-worth of my pictures. This broke a different kind of habit. It’s been really valuable to go back into my archive, because I’ve made discoveries, seen pictures that I just didn’t see before. Our perception changes with age.
Rail: It almost seems like Sunshine Hotel allowed you to collaborate with yourself as you were at another point in time.
Epstein: Artists train themselves to draw on their subconscious memory. The fact is that what I am now is an extension of what I was at an earlier point in time. I’ve engaged with my past work continually by studying my earlier pictures for the seeds of ideas that lie there dormant. Sometimes you have to wait for time and experience to prepare you to develop those seeds.
Rail: In my experience of the book so far, in general I don’t find a great distance between the photographs that are older and those that are more recent.
Epstein: I approached the pictures without a hierarchy of which were more or less important. I worked closely with my editor, Andrew Roth. He looked at the pictures with no concern for when they were made. They were just pictures that belonged in the book or didn’t. Once we selected what would go in, the old pictures were no longer of the past, they were now an active part of the present. The past became pertinent, not nostalgic.
Rail: The pastness of the past isn’t the main thing that I get from Sunshine Hotel. Yes, I can see that there’s a car that you don’t see anymore now. Like the one on what looks like the empty terrain that’s now Battery Park City, where they used to have “Art on the Beach.”
Epstein: That Cadillac.
Rail: Yeah, that style, that kind of car, they don’t make them like that anymore. And of course I can recognize it as a place that doesn’t exist in that form anymore as well.
Epstein: That picture is so loaded because the World Trade Center towers are behind the guy napping on a cot on the side of the road. And you can’t just pull up by the side of the highway and take a nap anymore. When I made that picture there was no Homeland Security. And you’re right, that place is now Battery Park City.
Rail: All the empty spaces have gotten filled in.
Epstein: Yeah. The ’70s were more of a free-for-all. New York was messy. It was affordable. Its idiosyncrasies were compelling and inspired a whole generation of artists. The gentrification and monetization of New York have given us a more homogenized city. But it was far from perfect in the ’80s. It’s no use romanticizing how it used to be. New York is still a bastion of free thinking and creative opportunity. I’ll never leave.
Rail: And yet you have left the city before.
Epstein: In the ’80s I was going back and forth to India, where I worked on films, and was photographing. I was a cinematographer and production designer on Salaam Bombay!, India Cabaret, and So Far From India, which I made with my former wife, the director Mira Nair. Immersing myself through work and marriage in India were valuable for my later work, although I didn’t understand this at the time. I was learning to look at where I come from like a stranger.
In 1992, I went to Vietnam. The country had barely opened to the West and only a handful of westerners were there. I traveled all over but spent a lot of time in Hanoi, where I set up a collaboration with a dissident Vietnamese novelist. That experience forced me to question who I was as an American, and more consciously confront the history of the Vietnam-American war. I’d been a kind of knee-jerk anti-war teenager. At forty, I felt I had to look more closely at what we Americans had done. Working with a writer who had fought in the war was a way in. I am always looking to collaborate with people who can help me to better understand other worlds, which I would never pretend to fully understand on my own.
Vietnam was an artistic turning point for me, because it was the first time I conceived of my photographs as a directed and deep inquiry into one subject. I created a clear roadmap of where I’d go and what I would seek out to photograph—the map was a conceptual and practical structure, and I’d relinquish it as I encountered things I could not have predicted. This would become a life-long balancing act between structure and spontaneity. I set out with a plan and then I ignore the plan in order to respond to what’s in front of me. Plans are simply starting points. They have to be malleable. They have to allow me to be impulsive, and yet also help me bring direction to my impulses.
In 1995, as I finished my work in Vietnam, I felt a calling to come home and work again in the United States. I came back and made The City, a series about the transformation of New York in the final years of the 20th century. The City is also a meditation on the tension between our private and public lives. To play out this tension, I used black and white for portraits of my family and friends and color for photographs I made out on the streets. The black and white seemed more intimate and appropriate for portraits of people in my private life.
In 1999, I began one of my most ambitious and American series, Family Business. My father was a merchant and landlord in the small New England town of Holyoke, Massachusetts. There was a devastating fire in one of his buildings. It burned down and took with it an entire city block, leading to a 15-million-dollar lawsuit against my dad. I went home to help and started making pictures and films of my father’s life unraveling.
I had repudiated where I’d come from, and kept a safe distance from my taciturn father.
Going back and working in Holyoke was not an easy thing for me to do.
Rail: Going home and involving yourself in this situation of the unwinding of your father’s failed businesses in Massachusetts, something that you otherwise might not have elected to do.
Epstein: I would not have dreamed of making a body of work about my father and family. But what I witnessed when I went home during the crisis was about much more than my father. It was about the town and an American way of life that was disappearing, and so I felt I could do this without succumbing to sentimentality.
When I was working abroad, I struggled to learn about worlds that were not my own. Now I found myself in a world that I knew intimately. I had to somewhat detach myself emotionally to do this work, and like I said earlier, my time in far-off places helped: I was able to approach my father’s world with the same sense of wonder that I had brought to working outside the US, I was an insider and outsider at the same time.
Rail: Is the title Sunshine Hotel a glaring irony, or… ?
Epstein: Yeah, there’s irony for sure. The title suggests that this work and America itself are sunny when in fact they are both dark. I also think of the work as—forgive the cliché—shining a light on the ambiguities and contradictions of American life and history. For me, it’s also poignant. I’ve walked past the actual “Sunshine Hotel” sign on the Bowery for the last fifty years as a local resident.
Sometimes a title explains a book before you read it. The meaning of other titles becomes clear only at the end. You need to read through Sunshine Hotel to really understand the title’s irony and poignancy.
But the title can be read many ways. An old colleague of mine, Joe Lawton, thought that Sunshine Hotel was a metaphor for a camera, a place where images made of light reside. I wish I could say I’d thought of that!
Rail: That’s an amazing way to read the title. I feel like each time I look into the book I’m following a different thread. It doesn’t lead me directly from one thing to another step by step. There are things that are here, and then something else speaks to me there later on, in something like looping temporalities.
Epstein: That’s well put, there are formal and thematic patterns embedded in the book that the reader discovers through multiple readings. These patterns were the result of a highly intuitive, yet decisive process of editing. Some of the leitmotivs were calculated, some happened on their own, and Andrew and I recognized and exploited them.
Andrew proposed making fourteen passages that, together, function like a piece of music. The first sequence quietly pulls you in, and the others build by becoming visually and emotionally bolder. We didn’t follow a formula or look to other books for direction. We each, independently, had spent decades working on and looking at artist books, and relied on our acquired collective knowledge to make this book. We had discussed it for a long time before starting. We were going for a book that was simple, yet intricate and mysterious.
Rail: So how was doing a kind of retrospect like what you’ve done with Sunshine Hotel, how does that affect how you think you’ll go forward?
Epstein: A true retrospective can feel deadly. Like a tombstone. On the contrary, Sunshine Hotel has instigated a shift, not an ending. There’s a shift in how I think about and present my work, which might change the way I go out and make pictures. I’m not sure what it will mean in so far as the actual pictures are concerned, but I do feel less bound to the conceptual constraints I have imposed on myself for the last 30 years.
Sunshine Hotel gave me a useful pause from my current project, Property Rights, which I’ve shown in part but is still ongoing. It gave me a chance to step back and review the work I’ve made thus far and see new possibilities for what I’ll shoot next.
And Sunshine Hotel has motivated me to finish a book I started making years ago of work I made in India in the 1980s. Like with Sunshine Hotel, much of this Indian work has not been published or shown. My very first book was In Pursuit of India, published in 1987. I don’t reject that book, but my perspective has changed since then. There are many strong pictures I left out that have more of a raw, edgy quality. I’m using these to construct an India book that is more forthright and playful.
Finally, a crucial shift that has happened with Sunshine Hotel is that I am less fearful. I’ve always wanted to use my work to question the American status quo. This goes back to my high school yearbook. My questioning of American values has, over the last five decades, become more frontal and more specific. I’m less fearful of taking on the mantle of a political artist now because I understand that my work can be political without being didactic or limited to politics alone. Philip Guston grappled with this issue, and faced criticism for the political underbelly of his late paintings. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed, but I feel an urgent need to take responsibility to engage as an artist with the world around me.
As troubled as the world around me is, though, it’s still extraordinarily beautiful and holds the promise of change and justice. I am acutely aware of nature’s inherent beauty and transformative power. I’ve worked to finesse a pictorial strategy where beauty is often a foil for terror.