In 2003, the New York Times assigned Mitch Epstein to photograph a story in Cheshire, Ohio, home of the coal-fired Gavin Power Plant. American Electric Power had taken over the small town, buying out residents for their land and silence — and indemnity from lawsuits. The experience of photographing the town and speaking with the few residents who refused to leave transformed Epstein’s perspective. “Power,” the verb, he realized, is inseparable from the noun. And so, over the next five years, he traveled across the country, making photographs not just of nuclear reactors, oil refineries and wind turbines, but also of gas stations, electric chairs and solar ovens.
The resulting series, American Power, was exhibited and published in a 2009 monograph, but Epstein keeps pushing the work into new forms. In 2010, he launched a billboard campaign and activist website with his wife, writer Susan Bell. In 2011, after receiving the Prix Pictet, he collaborated with musician and composer Erik Friedlander to create a stage production of American Power, which was expanded and polished for the world premiere last month at the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis.
The stage in the McGuire Theater (designed by Herzog & de Meuron) was largely empty: on the left, a chair for Friedlander (on cello) with a few effects pedals; on the right, a desk for Epstein, a rolling cart filled with notebooks and binders, and a tripod-mounted video camera. The backdrop — a giant projection screen — was the star of the show. As the photographs were projected, Friedlander performed minimal cello pieces, half composed and half improvised. At intervals throughout the hour-long performance, Epstein delivered a tightly-scripted series of vignettes about his working process and the places and people he photographed. Several times he spread notebooks and photographs out on the desk and used the video camera to give us a closer look at the research materials. Another time he used it to frame Friedlander’s performance, focusing on his hand movements. After each segment, Epstein exited the stage, leaving Friedlander and his cello alone with the photographs on the screen.
I spoke with Epstein the week after the performance.
Eric William Carroll: American Power has taken many forms: exhibitions, books, billboards, a website, and now a theatrical performance. How do you see the project differently now?
Mitch Epstein: Each form has its possibilities and limitations for communicating with the public. The theater performance is the most complex and ambitious of all, because it draws from and synthesizes the other forms. Theater has a unique magic, because it’s ephemeral, like dance. We feel a special frisson from an artwork that we can’t hold onto. And theater is intensely collaborative. Seven people worked for six months to put together this performance. Having worked on feature films, I know how to collaborate, but the high risk and thrill of live performance are new to me. The American Power pictures became kinetic by being part of a narrative, musical performance — they couldn’t do that, not exactly, in any other form.
EWC: Tell me about your collaboration with Erik Friedlander.
ME: When I asked Erik to compose for American Power, I wanted the music to be in dialogue with the pictures, not a score behind them. I definitely didn’t want music that would over-interpret the images and tell the audience how to feel. I never had to say this; Erik’s such a sophisticated musician and thinker. The music and pictures function together as a conversation — Erik even improvises while watching the photographs on stage, responding to what the pictures are saying to him that night. The ensuing tension between his music and my pictures is the core of this performance, and what happens is not fully explainable. That’s part of the beauty of it.
EWC: I could tell you were very comfortable working together. Were there other artists or projects that inspired your collaboration?
ME: I was influenced by Laurie Anderson, in particular her post-9/11 performance, which used cultural and personal pain and politics to take the public to a place that was transcendent and, ironically, comforting. I appreciated the (apparent) simplicity of her staging. It takes a hell of a lot of complicated preparation to make something look simple. I was also influenced by William Kentridge’s performance I am not me, the horse is not mine and by Erik’s own show Block Ice & Propane, during which he played in front of photographs projected on a screen. The hybrid performance that uses non-actors — or non-traditional actors — to tell a story is a difficult thing to pull off.
EWC: After the performance I realized I’d never seen a photographer navigate a curtain call before. We’re used to photographers giving artist talks, of course, and there were also moments that felt like an intimate studio visit — for example, when you pulled images from your files and spread them on the table on stage. How consciously were you drawing on those models?
ME: My directors, Annie-B Parsons and Paul Lazar, encouraged me to incorporate behind-the-scenes aspects of my working process to make the piece more personal and bring the audience into a world they don’t normally get to enter. I culled materials from my day-to-day life as an artist — the polaroids, the notebooks filled with maps and research — and brought them to the stage. We wanted to balance the formality and eloquence of an artist talk with the extemporaneous, dynamic, intimate qualities of a studio visit. Annie-B suggested the tripod-mounted video camera as a prop, which served multiple functions: it symbolized surveillance, which is an important theme in the photographs; it let the audience share my point-of-view, when I focused the camera on the work materials on the desk; and perhaps most importantly, it allowed me to demonstrate the camera as a tool, inviting the audience to see how I frame a shot. Finally, it created tension between what you saw live with your own eyes and what you saw mediated by a camera and from a vantage I controlled.
EWC: There is a certain power that is unique to the slideshow. You determine the exact sequence of the images that we’ll see, and how long we have to look at them. Were you conscious of having that control over the audience?
ME: I direct the way an audience looks at my work in every form, whether it’s in a book or on a gallery wall, by determining the edit and sequence, positioning and design. I don’t think the theater gave me more control. If anything, it gave me less.