(As) American (As) Power

March 8, 2010

It is through photography that Mitch Epstein visits the intersections between landscape and society. He captured images of energy production and consumption sites and their neighbors in twenty-five states, often hounded by Homeland Security agents. Iker Gil and Andrew Clark discuss the notions of power, both electrical and political, with Mitch Epstein upon the publication of the book American Power (Steidl, 2009).


Mas issue energy as american as power 01

Amos Coal Power Plant III, Winfield, West Virginia, 2007. © Mitch Epstein.

IG: How did you start your series American Power?

ME: I had a commission in 2003 from the Sunday New York Times Magazine to photograph Cheshire, a town in southeastern Ohio on the Ohio River, where there’s a very large coal-fired power plant owned by American Electric Power Company. The company was advised by their legal department to buy out the town’s 200-300 residents and take ownership of all the properties because of environmental contaminations that had occurred, to stave off future lawsuits.

I was very struck and moved by the relationship between the community, how people lived and had a history in this place, and now had to give up their residences because of the contaminations. And also, the relationship between the town, the company and me. I got stopped a number of times and told I couldn’t take pictures. I tried to photograph the plant itself and they wouldn’t have anything to do with photography.

There was one woman named “Boots” Hern who, at the time, was 80 years old. If I had to say the single thing that unnerved me and made me think further about all that came up with American Power, it would be the experience of making her portrait. She was one of a dozen renegade holdouts in town who refused to sell their homes. She armed herself with a handgun and put these little Radio Shack-type surveillance cameras in her window because she had been harassed by some of the people from the company, trying to pressure her to sell. The image of this woman, who was like anyone’s grandma, has never left me. I woke up thinking about her back in New York. It was a moment in my own life where I wanted to look at the larger American landscape and energy as something that I came to quickly understand was so integral to the cultural, social, political landscape of this country. It enabled me to look in a very broad way at all things American but, at the same time, keep a thread of connection between all the pictures that I was making, so that I could bring together something that would be a kind of meditation on the state of things in America in the early twenty-first century.

Mas issue energy as american as power 02

Beulah “Boots” Hern, Cheshire, Ohio 2004. © Mitch Epstein.

AC: Did you always see the series American Power as a book?

ME: I knew that I would ultimately do a book, because I have long made books of my projects as a way to assert my authorship, yet with this project, I did not think about it early on. I was working first with the 4×5 and then an 8×10 inch camera, making pictures that were large in scope in a metaphorical, conceptual way, but also in a physical way. I was often looking at very big landscapes, and I was torn with this very notion of “Supersize Me” as a kind of cultural phenomena and identity. So I made the largest pictures I had ever made: 70×90 inches. This was a new form for me. I really worked picture to picture. Even though all the pictures are made out in the landscape, all in the field, they were not premeditated; the process of building a set of pictures, a body of work, was done step by step. It wasn’t really until I had been through three or fours years worth of work that I started to think about how to bring this whole project together in book format. In a way it was good for me to do it like this, because by the time I got to working on a book, the pictures had already been very edited. It is really more a collection of pictures, organized sequentially, that find their own narrative in the context of a book format.

IG: In your series, Power is strongly tied to Energy. Can you talk about that relationship? Was that the initial approach?

ME: The whole project started with this notion of “Energy as Power.” It didn’t take long to understand the interconnection of all these kinds of power. Again, going back to Cheshire, it was a corporation who had the supreme power. They were the ones who were producing this energy that ultimately had profound consequences, not only on the local community, but as well on the national landscape. The power plant that I was looking at and photographing had smokestacks that were so high in the landscape that the emissions were ending up in the northeast and beyond. We here in New York have litigated with Eliot Spitzer against American Electric Power because of the acid rain pollution that came to the northeast region. It led the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] to institute changes wherein the American Electric Power had to basically build new stacks or install new scrubbers to change the quality of emissions.

I didn’t preconceive it in a sense, but as I went about trying to make pictures, I saw that the whole notion of power was something often hidden and, in a sense, very potent. In Cheshire, somebody came along and negotiated the terms of an agreement with the corporation that suited some of the people—but not all the people. Then “Boots” Hern chose to exert her individual power and to stay, because she believed that she had the right to live in her home and now she had reached old age. I myself was coming up against my own constitutional rights, my individual power was called into question because I was standing in public property making pictures of the power plant and I was told by the state police and local security at the power plant that I didn’t have the right to do that. But in fact, I did have the right to do that. What this project, in a way, prompted me to think about was where we had come to and where we are now as a society, and the kind of opportunities we face and the choices that we have collectively made in the second half of the last century, the period that I grew up in and emerged as a citizen of the United States. I took a lot of things for granted.

Power is for me is very meaningful and brings up questions. Who has it and why? Where is it obvious and where is it hidden? Where is it a kind of balance between all these various constituencies, be they corporate or community or governmental? And even the power of nature, which figured in a way unexpectedly into this project. Over the course of five or six years that I worked on this, I witnessed extreme weather, Hurricane Katrina and Rita, the hurricanes that came to the Gulf of Mexico and Southern Florida, and had significant consequences on the production and consumption of energy and also on people’s lives. Plus the extremes of climate change and global warming, which I witnessed first hand going up to Alaska and looking at changes that are taking place there, as well.

Mas issue energy as american as power 03

Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, Nevada/Arizona, 2007. © Mitch Epstein.

IG: The locations that you photograph can be labeled as “security sensitive” places. As described in your afterword, it created considerable problems for you, with people even accusing you of carrying a missile launcher that in reality was your tripod. Do you think it would be easier now, with the current administration, to address the same project? And if so, would it influence your approach and message?

ME: Yes and no. I think things are definitely more evolved in certain ways with the current administration. There was this air of paranoia that was being instigated by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and we know now that it has been chronicled. But I still think that the way the coal and oil industry in this country function is to protect at all cost what they have at the expense of the public. So when it comes to photography, there are degrees of security risks when you get into refineries and nuclear power plants, some of the concerns are understandable in terms of photography. But the fact of the matter is that none of them want any publicity or any additional media exposure because they are subject to scrutiny. If you look closely at the way in which companies like Exxon, Mobile and BP, even this whole clean coal campaign that took place in the last year or two, they are using the media to basically portray themselves as being on the side of environmental consciousness and forward thinking in terms of the larger challenges that we face going forward as a society. And the fact is that’s a bit of a ruse. I don’t know that it would actually impact it any differently, because I think they don’t want to relinquish or rethink the power that they have. They answer to their fat cats. If you look at the records of all these companies, they are not making any kind of real changes.

Often times, when you are in these small places, you have local law enforcement very much working in tandem with the private security and so on. Let’s face it. They are drinking in the same bar. The irony is that all of these places are all photographed, they are in Google Earth, everything is transparent. So then, what is the big deal? I think there really isn’t a big deal. Obviously, if somebody is up to some mischief, they will be able to tell that right away and address it.

AC: As you went to the first places, such as Cheshire, and photograph them and then you move on to the next site, were you following a trail of conspicuous or malicious behavior? Were you seeking out places that you either had learned or researched about that fed into that mentality? Or was it places where you had this dynamic instance of consumption or production in terms of the plant, the size and the scale of the town, and its relationship? What was the journey of the selection of the locales through which the story could actually unfold?

ME: First of all, I am not an environmentalist. I’m an artist. So I wasn’t seeking to do environmental reporting in any proactive way. In fact, it’s the work itself that profoundly politicized me, and I had to some degree find, with effort, a balance between my own personal feelings, the passion that I feel about the subject and making pictures that weren’t one dimensional. Because I don’t think there is a single point of view.

I was learning a lot of the science and mechanics of these very different kinds of energy. I wanted it to be a cross-section in terms of the American landscape. So I looked at various regions that were rich in energy production and, through extensive research and reading, I designed these trips that were rich in terms of their energy production, but also often surprising. After I went to Cheshire, I looked in a more exhaustive way at the Ohio River Valley and the whole region going all the way up to West Virginia through Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. But after that, I wanted to look at something different, and in my research I read about West Texas. During the last century, it was one of the major sites where oil was discovered. A lot of those oil fields are all spent now, but in the last 15 years, Texas has become one of the biggest producers of wind energy. There’s this giant wind farm in West Texas that occupies a landscape that was once oil barracks with oil pump jacks, so I looked at that region. It wasn’t exhaustive; it was in some ways quite idiosyncratic, except that I was always looking to find interesting links that would extend the project further and deepen it in some way. I wanted to look at some of the sites that had been once the largest producers of energy, like the Hoover Dam, and also because it is such an iconic and magnificent project, and one where we really exercised our hand by diverting the course of nature. It created Lake Mead, an artificial lake with waters from the Colorado River. But the Hoover Dam is no longer operating at capacity and it’s questionable whether in 10 or 15 years it will be operating at all, because water in that area is as valuable, if not more so, than the electricity it can produce—there is a draught in the southwest. So I wanted to look at areas and sites that spoke to the history of energy within the American situation. And I wanted to go somewhere far afield. I even went to Alaska and drove pretty much the whole course of the Alaska pipeline.

And then I got interested, as I said earlier, in the politics of energy, in the military and their relationship to energy, and got in to look at a very small solar installation that had been set up at the Pentagon. On that same trip I went to the Department of Energy, where half the lobby was dedicated to the history of the Atomic bomb. That was interesting to me because it spoke to why we are in the predicament that we are in—our Department of Energy came out of the Department Atomic Energy commission. It was just not forward thinking, it was really quite backward thinking in a certain way. This overlap between nuclear power and the multiple uses of nuclear fuel within a single department I think is really quite complicated and maybe not the best thing. There were often these kinds of ironies and unexpected relationships between things that ultimately had resonance and were part of the fabric of what I could build here at the larger project, stepping back and trying to think about what this all meant as a collection of work. For me, the individual pictures have to work on their own and not necessarily as a whole. They don’t hold a single reading if they are so overt, they just become messagistic for me, and they are really not my best pictures.

IG: In several of your photographs, the usually imposing scale of the power plants is the inevitable background for everyday life. Did you encounter moments where the relationship between power and life was a little more hostile? What did the people say, for instance, who lived in the West Virginia house with the cooling tower in the backyard?

ME: It was really mixed. The irony is, that day I made two pictures. One was the Amos Coal Power Plant, the first picture of the series, and the other was the Poca High School and Amos Coal Power Plant. It was this beautiful autumn day, and I went to Raymond City, the neighborhood where I made the picture with the residential enclave and encroaching cooling tower. I didn’t have any difficulties there, and one woman very cordially invited me into her backyard and asked whether I wanted to appreciate the view. She had kind of a little concrete loveseat, as if they had this masterful view of a National Park. There was tremendous pride that I think she felt living next to something so monumental, yet also providing a service to so many. This view of the Canola River, coal barges would come up and down bringing coal from the mines. On the other hand, hours later as the day was ending, someone saw me in town, I was making another picture maybe half a mile from the plant, and they called the local law enforcement and, one thing led to another, after an hour I was interrogated by the FBI.

Mas issue energy as american as power 04

Poca High School and Amos Coal Power Plant, West Virginia, 2004. © Mitch Epstein.

There were these extremes, and I think that was the case everywhere. I carried with me this constant underlying anxiety, “Am I going to be questioned? What will be the consequences of that questioning?” What in fact it did was, it compelled me to be very clear about the commitments I was making to take pictures. In any case, when you work with an 8×10 camera, you don’t spontaneously take a photograph. It’s not like a digital camera where it’s an effortless gesture. I was doing more editing and really looking very hard at times about how I could take the pictures without getting into some endless round of interrogation that was going to make my day useless. There was an intensity about it that got carried forward into the pictures themselves. I also had limited time on a site, so there was a kind of pressure in the whole process. It’s like anywhere, there are people who are not fearful, but open and curious, and there are people who don’t like things to come about that are out of the normal. But we are going to be in a more interesting society if we are not all the same, if everything does not have to conform into some notion of normal, whatever that is.

One thing that is interesting that’s valuable to this discussion is that in a way, I made all this work quite unencumbered by the politics. I had all that in the back of my head, but it wasn’t what was driving the pictures. I didn’t have a kind of manifesto that I wanted to communicate. When this whole thing came together in a book, that’s when it became most clear in terms of what it was doing as an entire project.

IG: Your wife Susan Bell and you are working on a public art project called What is American Power? Can you talk a little about it?

ME: Over the years since I finished this work, in collaboration with my wife and editor Susan Bell, who worked with me in this project, I have taken this work and found a way to extend it into a more public realm by creating a public art project where we are taking a number of these pictures and making billboards with the website: We are going to launch this project in Ohio in April in two cities, Columbus and Cincinnati, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. It will bring the interested viewer, the public, to a website where that very question, “What is American power?” will begin a conversation on what that means. It may relate in a very specific way to energy, but it can relate in other ways to the potential and possibility of what American power is. My project is, in a sense, one answer, one response of many, and my project will be chronicled, a visual response to that question. Also, it will be a way in which some of the back stories, some of what I am talking about here that I don’t bring into the essay, some of the factual stories but also the connections between things, will be told behind the pictures. You will experience the project somewhat how you see it as a book, but with these other embellishments, letting the project sort of carry the audience to think further about what this project prompts.

Mas issue energy as american as power 05

What is American Power billboard. © Mitch Epstein.

IG: It is very interesting to see how this series becomes the starting point of a discussion. As you mentioned, there is not a clear or a single message. You bring to the table your great work and then, people have to begin to evaluate the benefits and consequences. I think it is fantastic that the series starts with a book, but then takes a much more public approach and becomes a tool of discussion.

ME: Thank you for saying that. In a way, this is how process functions for me. For a long time we were calling it American Power Public Art. It came up in discussion with someone who helped us to think how to phrase it and how to present it in a more communicative way in Ohio and to turn it into a question. In a sense, “What is American power?” creates an invitation that is very different than making a statement. That’s what I think enabled it to become something everyone can respond to in their own way, and I think it also leads one to not just look back, but also look forward with this notion of possibility. I decided that Ohio was the right place to begin this project for several reasons: because the first pictures were made in Ohio, because American Electric Power, which is the largest in the country period, their corporate headquarters are there, and also Ohio is a state that is just very pivotal, it is a very energy-driven state. I think it’s a state where this whole subject can be fruitful in terms of deepening the conversation, but not doing it in a way that is not a single note; there is not one answer. There are going to be all these types of energies.

For me, what I am most interested in is to have people think in a deeper way about what they take for granted, to learn more of the consequences of these multiple types of energy. To call into question this profound sense of entitlement I think that we all have as Americans. We have grown up to assume that we have the right to have as much as we tend to think we do, but there are consequences to a lot of those things that we take for granted.

Mas issue energy as american as power 06

Altamont Pass Wind Farm, California, 2007. © Mitch Epstein.

AC: In a couple of questions, we run into the idea of an Americanized ideal of having a certain amount of something, usually a lot of it. What if we take a look at our suburban lifestyle with a renewable energy source at the same time, like in your picture Altamont Pass Wind Farm? How do we take things that we are learning about in American Power and either educate other countries, or are they simply buying the suburban ideals and mimic the American version of it? What do you think are the challenges in those places?

ME: In a cultural way, I think the biggest challenge is to begin to think in new ways about what we basically committed a good part of the 20th century to develop, which is the notion of the American suburbs. It is now really quite clear that cities are much more efficient, and also in a way much healthier, in terms of the way in which communities are nurtured. I live in New York and I am always astonished by how such diverse cultural ethnicities manage to live reasonably well together. Not to say that there are enormous gaps between rich and poor and class differences that could stand to be in better balance. But it doesn’t take much to look at the ways in which we missed the boat on so much in the second half of the twentieth century. We don’t have any kind of rail system to speak of, and you know, it’s a little frustrating because President Obama, on one hand, is quite progressive thinking, but at the same time we are not making big commitments to thinking in new ways about the infrastructure in the United States. And a lot of it is because we have lobbies that have been so strong against it. It took basically Detroit to get humbled to its knees to be compelled to think in a new ways about things like the electric car, building cars that are more efficient and not just satisfying the ego of a few.

Again, when you think about the suburbs, and you think about ownership, in society we have this kind of frontier spirit and we live through, in quite a profound way, this notion of manifest destiny, this idea that our resources are unlimited, that potential progress is infinite. In the end, we are at a point of diminishing returns; we can be much more efficient but also egalitarian without necessarily giving anything up. It’s this idea of entitlement and ownership that is very entrenched in the American psyche—and the very discussion of it, I think, gets people very shaken up. I don’t want to put it so bluntly, but I think that we built the suburbs and now we have to begin to think of how we can undo some of it, and instigate a new kind of social concept into the American plan.