Power is like a Russian nesting doll, writes photographer Mitch Epstein of a realization he came to while doing field work for American Power, his five-year project documenting energy production and consumption in the US. “Each time I opened one kind of power, I found another kind inside. When I opened electrical power, I discovered political power; when I opened political power, I discovered corporate power; within corporate was consumer; within consumer was civic; within civic was religious, and so on, one type of power enabling the next.” His visual investigation took him from Cheshire, Ohio, where the American Electric Power Company was buying the silence of residents down-wind from a plant that spewed contaminants, to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State, from the Gulf Coast in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina to the 2008 Republican National Convention, held at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center. The project constantly presented challenges–aesthetic, logistical, political–as he worked to get access to sensitive sites in post-9/11 America with large-format photographic equipment.
Minneapolis-based photographer Paul Shambroom, whose work is featured in the Walker Art Center collection, has navigated some of the same issues–and terrain. A professor at the University of Minnesota, his examinations of “American power and culture” have likewise taken him across the country, to sites ranging from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to the NORAD/USSPACECOM Command Center in Colorado Springs, the Joint Chiefs of Staff Conference Room in Washington to the city council chambers of tiny Yamhill, Oregon.
To commemorate American Power being reimagined on the Walker stage in a visual, musical, and oral exploration with cellist/composer Erik Friedlander, we invited Epstein and Shambroom to share their thoughts on aesthetics, activism, and the ways that connecting the dots of American power can lead to surprising personal and photographic revelations.
Paul Shambroom: In revisiting American Power over the last few days, I realize it has more of a narrative sense than I remembered. I’m thinking about the picture of the woman with the gun and the security monitors in her house. To me, the series reads as a journey where you were both selecting an itinerary and allowing the journey to be laid out before you by what you encountered.
Mitch Epstein: I often start with a clear agenda, but let myself stray from it when I see something unexpected that looks interesting. I didn’t exactly set out to draw a narrative, but I did want to find a relationship between things, where something going on in one place had a consequence in another. In Cheshire, for example, Boots, the old woman with a gun, was fighting American Electric Power [AEP], which was contaminating her town; I was struck that her personal narrative directly related to anyone living on the Eastern seaboard, because the toxic stuff spewing out of the AEP stacks was carried by the wind across state borders and found by scientists in places like New York City. That’s acid rain. That relationship interested me, between Boots and AEP in Ohio and all of us living in New York, Pennsylvania, Maine, and so on. American Power has miniature narratives—Boots against the corporation, New Orleans against Hurricane Katrina, Texas turning to big wind after big oil—and these mini-narratives point to a larger connection among situations and people in the US.
Shambroom: You wrote in the foreword to American Power: “When I photograph, I do not consciously think about politics.” What do you think about when you’re actually there with the camera?
Epstein: I don’t think! Not in the intellectual sense. I’m just thinking about how to compose what it is that I’m seeing into a strong photograph. When things are going right, my approach is intuitive and fluid. Something ignites my interest for reasons impossible to really put into words—reasons formal, conceptual, emotional. At that moment of ignition, that moment when I feel provoked, I start trying to build a picture that will be layered and expansive.
Beyond that, who knows? When it’s really working, the picture-making process is still profoundly mysterious to me: when the good pictures come, how it is they come, how one thing leads to another. I just try to be open to what’s at hand, and not get stuck inside my initial intention.
In your work, there’s also a kind of kinetic, open response to a subject. Each picture is not formulaically a repetition of what came before. That’s part of what’s so wonderful about photography as a medium. It’s plastic and adaptable to so many variables.
Shambroom: You’ve taken pictures at Hanford [Nuclear Reservation in Washington State] and other places that I know are very difficult to get into. In my experience, there’s so much effort that goes into getting access, and there’s an emotional entanglement with that. You might be proud of the fact that you got in, but once you’re there you have to forget about all that. Once you’re in, you’re just a guy with a camera. It comes to a point where the challenge becomes not thinking too hard, just making pictures.
Epstein: For me, the work has to stand on its own without any explanation, and who cares that I didn’t get into here or there? It’s often the pictures that are made from the perspective of being an outsider that have the richest potential photographically. They reflect how I’m experiencing the world—and being an outsider can be more psychologically complex than being on the inside. So the challenges I had getting into more or less forbidden sites show up in the pictures—not literally, but in some abstract way. The fear and fury I felt getting stopped by cops and FBI agents and going through security checks, these experiences infiltrated my photographs. I wouldn’t want to go through it all again, but the American Power series is more provocative because of what I went through making it. The pictures are harder for the viewer to dismiss because they’re carrying, vibrationally, my personal experience of being shut out, frisked, terrified, and pissed off. That’s more engaging than a didactic political message. I’m not making photographs to send a message. I’m interested in going through certain situations and questioning them, and provoking viewers to go through them with me and question them, too, in their own way.
I feel something of the personal experience you had making the pictures of small town meetings when I look at your “Meetings” series. They have a powerful point of view. You had to form relationships with strangers, you weren’t sure they’d trust you, you were skeptical of and impressed by them at the same time. All that’s there—not as polemic, but just there, as an experience shared with the viewer.
You seem to have a tremendous amount of success in getting access to things, even after 9/11. For me, it’s gotten harder in the last decade because there’s this innate suspicion that I am, as an artist, up to no good.
Shambroom: I was working on a small energy-related project in 2008, just when you were wrapping up American Power. I photographed the Strategic Petroleum Reserve sites. There are two in Texas, two in Louisiana. Did you get anywhere near those sites?
Epstein:I contacted the Department of Energy, but I didn’t get near those sites. I was amazed that you were able to get to the vantages that you did. I also find it interesting how you photographed something that you don’t get to see. How did you decide to take on the challenge of making a picture of something invisible? And how did you formally contend with it?
Shambroom: As you know there are big ideas and big topics. Power is a great example. It’s really difficult to come up with a plan of how to visualize a huge concept through photographs. The phrase “think globally, act locally” obviously comes to mind. With the exception of photographs from space, all photographs are local.
Oil seems to be what makes the world go around and what is making the world fight. Everything that is going on in the Middle East, oil is the subtext of it. With climate change it’s certainly the subtext, too. How do you show that? It’s a huge challenge, and I think it defeats most people. The Strategic Petroleum Reserve is not a small thing either. It’s huge, but at least there are four places on the map where you can go.
Writing about the conventions in Denver and St. Paul you said, “This project was, in part, about not getting in,” and that was clearly what was going on with the petroleum reserve pictures. I guess my experience was opposite of yours. You’ve mostly done your work without having to ask anybody for permission, right? You just go out in the world and take pictures for the most part?
Epstein: No, that’s not so. With this project I sent hundreds of letters to corporations, the Department of Energy, the military, and so on. In Cheshire, the first pictures I made for American Power were done on a commission. I was asked to photograph the death of this town, and, to me, it seemed appropriate to not only photograph the town, but to also get access to the coal-fired power plant. But there was this complete wall. As time went by, I persisted, and eventually I got into a couple of coal-fired power plants, and Yucca Mountain…
Shambroom: I was very impressed that you got in there. Also Hanford.
Epstein: And Longmont, where there was another set of labs where atomic weaponry was developed. It was a superfund cleanup site, and now there’s basically a restored landscape in place. It was interesting to go, for the same reason that you went and photographed the landscape and environs of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve: you don’t see it. It’s important to find ways to evoke history when most traces of it cannot be seen.
I used to just “go out into the world ” to make pictures when I started out, but since the early ’90s, when I worked in Vietnam, I’ve made projects with a clear conceptual framework, and they’ve demanded a lot of research and preparation.
One of the beauties of doing Family Business was that my father was so loved in his town [Holyoke, Massachusetts] that I could go to the chief of police and he would say to me, “Well, your dad was a stand-up guy, so there’s no question, you can just come in here. If you want to go see the arsenal of munitions and drugs that we have in the evidence room, no problem.”
So, there’s something to be said for being in a small town where you grew up. With your meetings photos, how did you gain such privileged access in all these small communities?
Shambroom: With those photos, all I had to do was ask. I didn’t even have to do that legally. I’m sure you know this, too: if you’re respectful and really interested in people and what they do, they’ll respond favorably, because a lot of people toil away in their lives without anybody really paying any attention to them or what they do.
Epstein: Exactly. I sense that in your work, and I think that’s admirable.
Shambroom: Getting back to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve photos: I was doing that work in 2008, and I went through the whole rigmarole with the Department of Energy thinking that I’d be able to get in. I tried everything I could, but they basically told me “when hell freezes over.” Ultimately, when it became clear they weren’t going to let me in, I got the head of security for the whole operation on the phone. I said, “OK, so I’m going to photograph from outside,” and he said, “Well, we don’t want you to do that either.”
I said, “I understand you don’t want me to, but you understand that it’s legal, so how can we work together? How can I make things easier for your people, and how can you make things easier for me?” And he went for it. He accepted that logic, and so every day when I was out working, I would call the office and tell them where I was going to be and gave them the license plate on my rental car, and it worked out pretty well. As you know, it’s the sheriffs and the local police that will cause the biggest problems. So, after all that, just before the trip they invited me in to one of the sites. I suspect it was probably just to check me out.
Epstein: For me, what was really out of whack was corporate security for power plants that would use law enforcement to inhibit or prohibit photography. I’d be kind of vigilante-style led out of a town or told I had to go or I was going to get arrested.
A lot of the American Power work was made in the wake of 9/11, during the period of paranoia propagated by the Bush/Cheney team. In small towns especially, people were afraid, and they weren’t educated about what exactly to be wary of. So they were wary of everything unfamiliar. That meant me: the New Yorker with an 8×10 on a tripod and a Jewish name. They might have asked themselves why a terrorist would be lugging around a heavy, antique looking 8×10 camera!
To me, what’s astonishing is that you could secure access to a nuclear missile silo, but they wouldn’t let you in to look at the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
Shambroom: I did all that nuke work before 9/11. In fact, the last pictures I took were August of 2001. As you get constantly reminded, “Well, it’s a different world.” That’s a phrase I’ve heard many times: “Well, don’t you know what’s going on in the world?” As if that statement trumps the fact that it’s still legal to take pictures of most anything from public property.
There are these Homeland Security training films that various states put out–I’ve collected some of them online–about the “Seven Signs of Terrorism.” Almost all of them include footage of people taking pictures. They’re actually telling people that photography is, in and of itself, a suspicious act.
Epstein: It’s ironic because we’re living in this era where everyone has a camera, and everyone is taking pictures, and everything has been photographed.
Let me ask you one more question. Since your work is also engaging with a kind of activism, how do you reconcile political activism and making art?
Shambroom: It’s a hard question. There’re two parts to that. One is more of a practical matter, and that relates to getting access–
Epstein: No, I’m asking more pointedly about whether or not you view your work as political and if so, are you concerned with it being didactic? I try to make sure that I don’t fall into the trap of proselytizing; I’m particularly careful of this when I edit.
Shambroom: What I have to remember is a certain form of humility–that once you make the work and it’s out in the world, it doesn’t really matter what your intentions are. It’s going to have its own life, and people are going to react to it the way they will.
I definitely learned that with my nuclear weapons book. The book sold out in a year and a half, which is really unheard of for a first book by a relatively unknown photographer. I don’t think it was art and photography people buying it. It was weapons buffs. It’s these people who fetishize nuclear weapons, and I had a lot of pictures of things they hadn’t seen before.
I’m fine with that. I try to maintain at least a surface veneer of neutrality. With that project, it wasn’t hard to do because the stuff is so weird looking. You don’t have to make images that are photographically clever or weird in order to let the things speak for themselves.
Visually, it’s really compelling, interesting stuff. If you’re horrified by it you’re going to be horrified by it, and if you think it’s great stuff you’re going to think that. In other words, I didn’t have to put broken baby dolls in front of missile silos to make them poignant and disturbing. They are disturbing.
Epstein: That’s well said.
Shambroom: It was pretty clear to me how I felt about nuclear weapons. They’re horrible and maybe the greatest folly humans have ever undertaken. I think about letting the subject reveal itself without having to be photographically clever. With my “Meetings” pictures, I definitely did those in kind of a typological style. After 9/11, it just wasn’t so easy for me, politically. I wasn’t sure how I felt. It’s not as if I had a well defined stance that I could decide to not reveal or to reveal. They [the 9/11 attackers] did a really bad thing to us. Whether or not you favored a military intervention is a whole other question. To me it seemed like a time of political and moral confusion. The overall question was “what is real,” applying to everything from WMDs in Iraq to the validity and manipulation of fear. Know what I mean?
Epstein: I do, and I think it’s poignant that you chose to do the city council meeting pictures in that period. Because communication is what’s central to that work. At times, there’s the suggestion in the pictures of frustration or indifference, but they’re about people from different places engaged in a dialogue toward a common purpose. I think that they, in their totality, speak to perhaps the best of what our system has to offer.
Shambroom: That’s the view I went in there with. I saw a lot of buffoonery and people that I thought, ‘Wow, I’m glad they’re not leading my community.’ But the fact that they made the choice to step up and do it was what was significant.
Epstein: How did your process change, going from all these nuclear missiles weapons, which are on such a monumental scale, to something human at a local level? Did that project bring you to a new understanding about power itself?
Shambroom: I’m sure it did, although it’s not something I can easily articulate. I came to the belief that when people wield power, there’s some commonality whether you’re on the city council, town of 500 people, or whether you’re in Congress. People are abusive of power, people have big egos, some people just, from my perspective, seem saintly. They’re doing this terrible, hard work that nobody wants to do, and they’re being thoughtful and just doing it because they feel a responsibility to their communities.
I think on some level that’s probably true for every leader, on every level of government. I believe in some way they think they’re doing the right thing, even if I totally disagree with their values and how they lead. That was brought home to me over and over while I was photographing and visiting these little towns.
Epstein: Let me ask you a non sequitur question here, because it’s something that I wrestle with: How do you come up with the ideas for your projects?
Shambroom: It’s the single hardest thing to do, because there’s so much at stake. We, you and I and many other people, devote tremendous portions of our lives and our energy and our resources to undertaking these things. And at some point you have to pick a road and go down it. For me it doesn’t happen all at once. There are a lot of false starts.
I came to the idea of doing meetings from my work with nuclear weapons. Towards the end, I was photographing a lot of command-and-control areas, where there are human beings who are making these incredibly consequential decisions about the use of nuclear weapons. But they’re people who sit down, have a meeting, and make a decision.
I was photographing the conference table at the Pentagon for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and I remember thinking, “I’d sure love to be here when they’re actually having a meeting.” So, that was the genesis of that. It took several years before I finally got to the idea of only photographing small meetings, not large ones, and that mostly came through failure: I couldn’t get access.
Corporations are harder than the government. I was trying to get into Fortune 500 company board meetings, and I had good connections. They said, “It’s just never going to happen.” But, that’s not really addressing your question.
Epstein: It is in one way, because you’re implying that sometimes an idea will mutate into another idea through rejection, failure, or the inability to get access, and so a kind of openness on your part, an intellectual flexibility, led you to the right place.
Maybe it was about going from something that was so big and almost incomprehensible and horrific to something intimate, hopeful, and manageable.
Shambroom: And, really, what is a good idea? For me, it has to be something that’s going to motivate me to do all this hard work. There has to be some kind of juice in it, it has to be something I haven’t done before and hopefully something that a lot of other people haven’t done before in this way. It has to be something that really drives you, drives your curiosity.
Epstein: I respect that phrase “something I haven’t done before,” because that’s not a given with artistic practice, especially with people of our generation who’ve been in it for a long time. Not repeating oneself is the more challenging path.
Shambroom: You said that your American Power project came about because of a commission. Do you have other thoughts on what good ideas are and how you arrive at them?
Epstein: There’s something so unscientific about the way that I arrive at what I commit to. There’s no one way in which it happens, and it’s not, as you said, really clear that it’s something that’s going to develop until I’m really into it.
With American Power, I was moved by the experience I had in Cheshire, Ohio (the New York Times commission), which compelled me to look more deeply at the themes that came into play there of energy and power in the American landscape and culture. But I had no interest in making a series of pictures of dying towns like Cheshire. I wanted to get at what created Cheshire and what other manifestations of power were out there–from the largest truck stop in the world to wind farms to the detritus from Katrina. I became fascinated by the pun of power–electrical power came from political power, which came from corporate power–and civic power met up against all that. The theme started out small–electrical energy in the U.S.–and swelled up pretty quickly into an exploration of the very meaning of power in the United States. It was absurdly ambitious. I focused on research and making pictures mostly, to avoid getting freaked out by the scope of what I was trying to do. I didn’t know the precise span of it until I was editing, when I could see the synthesis of all the parts. That’s usual: the editing phase is when the structure and conceptual breadth of my projects take hold.
The genesis of Family Business, was a little different. It didn’t occur to me that I should do a project about my father, because I’m not that courageous. I would have completely talked myself out of it as soon as it had come into my head. But a number problems arose with my father’s businesses and, having left home 30 years before, I went back to see if my presence could help in any way. It couldn’t. But once I was there, I found that my father’s situation was something I had to stay with and investigate more deeply. I needed to get through the obstacles of my fear of my father and the general discomfort I felt in going home. That took a while. I never thought I’d put five years into it. But, like with American Power, the project grew as I worked on it. It’s kind of like watering a plant–the more I work on something the more branches of interest it sprouts. Family Business started out about my father’s failing businesses, but ended up being the story of his hometown and family as well.
For me, it’s a lot about listening. What’s so challenging, but also rewarding, about making art is that influences, inspirations, and ideas often come from places that are so unexpected.