Mitchell Epstein (born 1952) is an American fine-art photographer, among the first to make significant use of color. Epstein's books include Sunshine Hotel
(2019), Rocks and Clouds
(2018), New York Arbor
, (2013) Berlin
(2011); American Power
(2009); Mitch Epstein: Work
( 2006); Recreation: American Photographs 1973-1988
(2005); and Family Business
(2003), which won the 2004 Kraszna-Krausz Photography Book Award.
Epstein's work has been exhibited and published extensively in the United States and Europe, and collected by numerous major museums, including New York's Museum of Modern Art
and Whitney Museum of Art
, The J. Paul Getty Museum
in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
, and the Tate Modern
in London. He has also worked as a director, cinematographer, and production designer on several films, including Dad
, Salaam Bombay!
, and Mississippi Masala
Epstein was born and raised in a Jewish family in Holyoke, Massachusetts. He graduated from Williston Academy, where he studied with artist and bookmaker Barry Moser. In the early 1970s he studied at Union College, New York; Rhode Island School of Design, Rhode Island, and the Cooper Union, New York, where he was a student of photographer Garry Winogrand
By the mid-1970s, Epstein had abandoned his academic studies and begun to travel, embarking on a photographic exploration of the United States. Ten of the photographs he made during this period were in a 1977 group exhibition at Light Gallery in New York. In 1978, he journeyed to India with his future wife, director Mira Nair, where he was a producer, set designer, and cinematographer on several films, including Salaam Bombay!
and India Cabaret
. His book In Pursuit of India
is a compilation of his Indian photographs from this period.
From 1992 to 1995, Epstein photographed in Vietnam, which resulted in an exhibition of this work at Wooster Gardens in New York, along with a book titled Vietnam: A Book of Changes
. “I don’t know that Mitch Epstein’s glorious photographs record all of what is salient in end-of-the-twentieth century Vietnam,”
wrote Susan Sontag for his book jacket, “for it’s been more than two decades since my two stays there. I can testify that his images confirm what moved and troubled me then… and offer shrewd and poignant glimpses into the costs of imposing a certain modernity. This is beautiful, authoritative work by an extremely intelligent and gifted photographer.”
Reviewing an exhibition of the Vietnam pictures for Art in America, Peter Von Ziegesar writes, “In a show full of small pleasures, little prepares one for the stunning epiphany contained in Perfume Pagoda… Few photographers have managed to make an image so loaded and so beautiful at once.”
Having lived and traveled beyond the United States for over a decade, Epstein began to spend more time in his adopted home of New York City. His 1999 series The City
investigated the relationship between public and private life in New York. Reviewing The City exhibition at Sikkema Jenkins
in New York, Vince Aletti wrote that the pictures “[are] as assured as they are ambitious.”
In 1999, Epstein returned to his hometown of Holyoke, Massachusetts, to record the demise of his father's two businesses—a retail furniture store and a low-rent real estate empire. The resulting project assembled large-format photographs, video, archival materials, interviews and writing by the artist. The book Family Business
, which combined all of these elements, won the 2004 Krazna-Kraus Best Photography Book of the Year award. In 2004, his work was exhibited during evening screenings at Rencontres d'Arles
From 2004 to 2009, Epstein investigated energy production and consumption in the United States, photographing in and around various energy production sites. This series, titled American Power
, questions the meaning and make-up of power—electrical and political. Epstein made a monograph of the American Power
pictures (2009), in which he wrote that he was often stopped by corporate security guards and once interrogated by the FBI for standing on public streets and pointing his camera at energy infrastructure. The large-scale prints from this series have been exhibited worldwide.
In his Art in America
review, Dave Coggins wrote that Epstein “grounds his images… in the human condition, combining empathy with sharp social observation, politics with sheer beauty.”
In the New York Times, Martha Schwendener wrote: “What is interesting, beyond the haunting, complicated beauty and precision of these images, is Mr. Epstein's ability to merge what have long been considered opposing terms: photo-conceptualism and so-called documentary photography. He utilizes the supersize scale and saturated color of conceptualism, and his odd, implied narratives strongly recall the work of artists like Jeff Wall.”
In 2008, Epstein won the Berlin Prize in Arts and Letters from the American Academy in Berlin. Awarded a 6-month residency, he moved to Berlin with his wife and daughter from January to June 2008. The photographs he made of significant historical sites were published in the monograph Berlin
(Steidl and The American Academy in Berlin, 2011).
In 2013, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis commissioned and premiered a theatrical rendition of Epstein’s American Power photographic series. A collaboration between Epstein and cellist Eric Friedlander, the performance combined original live music, storytelling, video, and projected photographs and archival material. Epstein and Friedlander also performed at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio (2014), and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (2015).
His new series, Property Rights
, was exhibited at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York and Galerie Thomas Zander
, Cologne in the fall of 2019 and at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas in 2020-2021. Recent solo exhibitions include: Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow (2020), Museum Helmond, Netherlands (2019), Andreas Murkudis, Berlin; Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York; Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire, Paris (2016-17); as well as Fondation A Stichting in Brussels (2013); Sikkema Jenkins & Co., NY (2012); Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne (2012); Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris (2011); Kunstmuseum Bonn (2011); and Musee de l'Elysee in Lausanne (2011).
In 2020, Mitch Epstein was inducted as an Academician to the National Academy of Design. In 2011, Epstein won the Prix Pictet for American Power. Among his other awards are the Berlin Prize in Arts and Letters from the American Academy in Berlin (2008), and a Guggenheim Fellowship (2003).
At Cooper Union, Epstein was a student of photographer Garry Winogrand and was influenced both by Winogrand and William Eggleston
's use of color. Epstein helped pioneer the redefinition of color photography as art form, as he was one of the earlier practitioners of fine-art color photography. He is well known for documenting his projects as books, which he feels allows him to form a narrative structure for his photographs. Epstein shoots film, as he believes he would not get the tonal rendering and detail for his large prints if he were to use digital.
Source: International Center of Photography