NEW YORK — “See, we were obese even back then,” says photographer Mitch Epstein as he flips through his latest book, “Recreation: American Photographs 1973-1988” (Steidl).
Indeed, the couple shown dining in a picture taken in Gary, Ind., in 1986 could stand to lose a few pounds. Then there’s the chubby young student wearing too-tight white pants dancing her heart out in a scene shot in New Orleans in 1974.
But while Epstein may be right that obesity isn’t a new problem, it’s not what his book is about.
The photographs featured in this latest project portray “a period when Americans were out and about in the pursuit of pleasure,” Epstein says, “before pleasure became a commodity.” Families and teens parked near Cape Canaveral, Fla., before a Space Shuttle launch in 1983 is one such example, with no souvenir vendors or high-priced parking lots in sight. This September, 25 pictures from the series will be exhibited at the Brent Sikkema gallery here.
The earliest prints in the book were made while Epstein, now 53, was still a student at Cooper Union. Since then, he’s produced movies with Indian filmmaker Mira Nair, to whom he was once married, and completed five photography books. His photographs have been shown in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum, garnering him a reputation as a respected documentarian. “I draw from the world,” he says. “You can’t make this stuff up.”
He learned that the hard way when he decided to chronicle the demise of his father’s furniture and appliance store in 1999 after over 80 years in business (because of internal family conflicts, it was eventually liquidated). Despite its melancholy subject matter, the result, “Family Business,” won the 2004 Kraszna-Krausz Photography Book Award. “My father was very big-spirited and quite astonished by the depth of my work,” Epstein says. “But it was a tremendous challenge to turn the camera on what was so familiar.”
For his next endeavor, Epstein is currently focusing his lens on the culture of energy in America. He’s been shooting in and around areas where energy is produced, such as nuclear power plants, hoping to reflect the U.S.’s relationship with the resource.
It’s certainly a different topic than Americans and pleasure. “It will touch on what it means to be an American to me today,” Epstein explains. “But it is a loaded political and cultural issue.”