Review: American Power by Mitch Epstein


Book Reviews, Photobooks


In physics, the term power describes the rate at which energy is used or work is done, and the average power is defined as energy divided by time. Dividing energy by time seems like a weird concept, but it makes perfect sense. For all meanings of the word power it is always helpful to think of some sort of energy (electrical, chemical, political, …) being consumed to achieve a desired outcome (blow-dry one’s hair, make the car go to the grocery store, bring about meaningful health-care reform, …). Or put simply, if you don’t have any power you won’t be able to move anything. While a negative definition often is not very useful, in this case it is: While we humans usually only have a somewhat fuzzy idea what it feels like or might mean to have power, everybody knows what it feels like to have no power, whatever the circumstances might be.

Given that the seemingly different meanings of power - physical versus political - can thus be traced back to a simple underlying idea (which, granted, might be a bit simplified), it will come as no surprise to see that in the grander scheme of things the various forms of power are also related. This fact was driven home forcefully under the George W. Bush administration, which was obsessed with its own (executive) power, with oil (a physical power), and with the military (whose power derives form more than one simple factor). Of course, there is no need to talk about the different aspects in detail any longer, since most of the abuses of the Bush administration have been laid out, for everybody to see, in the form of many books.

Mitch Epstein’s American Power contains photography that describes the different kinds of power and their interrelation at the beginning of this century. Originally supposed to be images about “the relationship between American society and the American landscape”, with energy as “the linchpin”, the work ultimately morphed into covering all the different - interrelated - types of power (all quotes are taken from the photographer’s essay at the end of the book). The reason for this was simple: The photographer was unable to see one type of power, for example energy, without another type of power, for example the power of a corporation controlling a power plant - or the police, which more than once approached him while he was taking photographs: “I resented the systematic harassment I faced while I worked on American Power. Law enforcement officials more than once ran me out of town when I had done nothing remotely criminal.”

Photographically, American Power is nothing but the product of an artist at the prime of his own, yes, artistic power, large-format photography at its finest. It is hard to imagine the energy it must have cost Epstein to produce the different photographs, but the run-ins with law enforcement officials do not seem to have had any impact on the quality of the work. Or maybe those run-ins, while depleting the photographer’s mental and, one must assume, physical energy sources, might actually have fueled his creative, artistic drive. Who knows?

Despite its background, American Power can be read in different ways. It does not lecture the reader about what is good and bad. It does not point towards a grim future, nor does it deny some of the grim past. This, of course, is the kind of book we need in these times, with the air waves dominated by people who know the answers and with things being either black or white, good or bad, or good or “evil”.

For me to be able to write this review, my computer relies on electrical energy (which I will have to pay for later). That energy is produced somewhere, or more accurately, some type of energy is converted into electrical energy. To write this review, my own body (currently) relies on a cup of tea, produced with gas (which I will have to pay for later), water (ditto) and, well, tea leaves; it also relies on energy left from last night’s dinner (as usual, breakfast will come only after I’m done with the blog). Without energy, there would have been no review. American Power is a good opportunity to reflect on energy and how it is being used and produced. It shows how contemporary photography often is about more than just images. It is about photographers going out into the world, reacting to what they see and experience, and making the viewer reflect: That’s the power of contemporary photography.