Mitch Epstein 2009 copyright courtesy Steidl
I think one of the better photographed and designed photobooks to shed light on the complexities and the enormity of the environmental, economic, political and social issues of the production and consumption of energy is Mitch Epstein’s American Power, published in 2009 by Steidl.
In reading Edward Burtynsky’s Oil, a photographic project that investigates the same subject, the landscape is photographed on a grand scale, frequently using an aerial perspective that literally provides the reader with an “overview”. The trade-off between the grand “Ansel Adams scale” and a mid-range framing for me is that the subject becomes impersonal and thus a little more difficult to directly relate to the issues. Burtynsky has also included fewer individuals in his project, also reducing the personalization and increasing the abstraction of the issues.
Interestingly both Burtynsky’s Oil (Steidl, 2009) and Epstein’ American Power are large, thick massive books, which would seem to consume large amounts of energy to print, bind and transport. Perhaps it was Gerhard Steidl’s intent to create these large books to capture the reader’s attention about a large, pressing and important issue.
Another photobook that was also released in 2009 on a similar subject was Chris Jordan’s Running the Numbers (2009) using symbolic subjects and thus more abstract, such as looking at a scientific notation for water and being able to relate to a body of water or a glass of water. For me, it was Chris Jordan’s earlier photobook In Katrina’s Wake (2006) that in examining the after-effects of the hurricane Katrina, makes the environmental issues of the production and consumption of power more comprehensible and a wonderful predecessor to Epstein’s American Power. Unlike Epstein and Burtynsky, both of Jordan’s photobooks are of a more traditional (and reasonable) size and heft.
Epstein explores the production and consumption of energy and in a broad and expansive investigation similar to Burtynsky, but using a moderate scale, along with a little dark humor, that can connect with the reader. Similar to both Burtynsky and Jordan, Epstein effectively uses balanced compositions and saturated color to create some beautiful, although troubling, photographs to capture the viewer’s attention. This was a project that would span between 2003 to 2008 and take him and his photographic support team to almost half of the States in America, as well as dealing the political and legal issues of publicly photographing energy sites post 9/11. Epstein’s subjects included the production of coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, fuel cell, wind and solar.
The book as an object; linen and embossed hardcover with dust jacket and the color photographic plates are beautifully printed and are slightly larger than the original 8 x 10” photographs, thus loaded with wonderful details. There is one color plate per page spread, with a neat white margin around each photograph and the plate numbers with a title (place and date of the photograph) are on the facing page. The Afterword is by Epstein to provide more of a personal context to his concept and the execution of this project.
Note: Mitch Epstein won the third annual Prix Pictet photography prize with the publication of American Power, an award which recognizes work on the subject of sustainability.