Mitch Epstein’s evocative portrait of 1970s America

Mitch Epstein’s evocative portrait of 1970s America
Alternating between colour and black-and-white, the photographer chronicled sexual liberation, economic crises and the repercussions of the war in Vietnam.

Fifty years ago, photographer Mitch Epstein arrived in New York to study at The Cooper Union with Garry Winogrand. After a semester of working in black and white, Epstein decided to take up colour photography – then very much a taboo among fine art photographers, as it was seen as the exclusive provenance of advertisers. 

Epstein quickly fell in love with Kodachrome lustrous palette – and the free time that came with no longer having to devote hours to developing negatives and prints. But after Kodak changed the emulsion in 1974, Epstein no longer got the results he liked. He went back to shooting black and white until 1977, when he began making colour images on a 6×9 format camera. 

By this time, Epstein had honed his street photography practice to precise effect, able to step into the eye of the hurricane and become one with the chaos that surrounded him. With the new exhibition and book, Silver + Chrome, Epstein presents a hypnotic collection of high-energy images made on the streets of New York, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. 

Bethesda Fountain, Central Park, New York City 1974

Published alongside a revised and expanded edition of Epstein’s landmark 2005 monograph, Recreation, these books offer a complementary and compelling look at the artist’s earliest work. They each offer a distinct perspective about the nature of street photography, whether it’s about seeing a story unfolding in one’s midst or capturing the raw intensity found amid a cacophonous throng of strangers.

“In these pictures, I am more the flâneur within the crowd — there’s this constant movement of people and activity,” Epstein says. “They’re still in this early period where I’m absorbing my influences like Winogrand but even though I’m working in similar terrain like Fifth Avenue, my way of thinking is not the same.”

Epstein points to a fearlessness he possessed in his youth that allowed him to him to take aim at strangers from point blank range. Many don’t seem to notice, but of those who do, some gaze skeptically, while others meet his gaze dead on, waiting to see what happens next. 

Fifth Avenue, New York City VI 1974

Fifth Avenue, New York City V 1976

But once the shutter clicks Epstein moves on, flowing through what he describes as “a kind of edginess and messiness on the street.” Once he established his practice in New York, Epstein was ready to step out and visit other cities where he might find a whirlwind of activity that readily lent itself to street photography.

“It was thrilling to be in this onrush of people, movement, and kinetic energy, an have the sensation of infinite possibility,” he says. “It was a kind of training to pay attention, have this acuity of focus, discipline, and patience. It was like listening with my eyes and when something jarred me, I responded to it.”

Looking back at these works, Epstein sees deeply embedded sexual, racial, and political themes that are even more resonant today. “These pictures to me at time are like a puzzle,” he says, “They have their own mystery.”

Bethesda Fountain, Central Park, New York City 1975

Midtown, New York City 1976

Fifth Avenue, New York City III 1975

Mitch Epstein: Silver + Chrome is on view through January 20, 2023, at Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne. Silver + Chrome is published by Steidl. 

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