Mitch Epstein’s recent photobook New York Arbor is a slight departure from his earlier photographic work, most recent of which is American Power (2009) and Berlin (2011), also published by Steidl. Although New York Arbor was photographed with his trademark 8 x10” view camera, the film and resulting images are in Black & White.
Epstein is investigating a subject in a place that is close to home, the trees found in the four sections of New York City. The images are sequentially ordered in a manner that the reader travels through time, passing through the four seasons. The viewer begins by confronting the large looming trees, nude of leaves, standing in the gray light of winter. The form and lines of a tree is fully exposed and evident unlike the warm summer days when these trees are darkly cloaked and concealed by dense leaves and vegetation.
These are much like environmental portraits, but instead of individuals the subjects are trees. They co-exist with us and like us become battered, injured, damaged and yet resilient. The trees cannot under their own power relocate themselves; they must survive in the serendipitous circumstances of where they took root many decades ago as the city continues to encircle them.
Some trees are presented multiple times reflecting the seasonal variation. Epstein is drawn to revisit his subjects for further re-examination and contemplation. The lighting is frequently flat, the artifact of an early morning light on a gray Eastern sunless day, reminding me of the portraiture of Paris trees by Eugene Atget. Similar gray lighting is preferred by Bernd and Hilla Becher for their large format industrial “sculptural” portraits, a flat lighting that allows details and features to not become lost in the shadows. Unlike the Becher’s, Epstein is not as clinical and coldly objective, although his subjects are similarly centered, but frequently the trees spill out of the frame. Epstein allows the tree to determine the right composition as well as he is willing to include individuals and other evidence of humanity into his pictorial frame.
To maintain perspective of his large subjects, even with the use of a large format view camera with its swings, tilts and shifts, it appears that Epstein has frequently found elevated camera positions. For many of the trees, without the ability to compare and contrast with a known object, say a two story house or multistory office building, the breath and size of his subjects is ambiguous and uncertain.
The hard cover book with dust jacket arrives in a printed slip case. For me, this is a case in which a large book (14” x 12”) is befitting of the interior images. The interior plates (12 ½” x 10”) are only a small enlargement over the original negative size (10” x 8”), thus reading this book is a similar opportunity to examine his contact prints.
Other Mitch Epstein photobooks reviewed on The PhotoBook: American Power