NEW YORK, NY.-
Mitch Epstein, a celebrated artist and pioneer of fine-art color photography in the 1970s, has published a new work, Property Rights
. The new book culminates a half-century of Epsteins work portraying the American landscape and its connection to historical events and social change.
This collection of photographs and short texts examines the American governments ongoing legacy of property confiscation and how communities gather to resist, providing a visual and written account of conflict and hope. Property Rights asks us to reflect on how our relationship to the land has defined Americas history, and exposes the racial and economic motives behind the historical appropriation of property.
In keeping with Epsteins 50-year exploration of American life, Property Rights questions the relationship between institutions, civil rights, and the rights of nature itself. Acknowledging our bodies and lives as our most fundamental property, the book examines other forms of trespass and destruction in an elegy to the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre and in photographs of Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd.
Property Rights includes the voices of activists, many of whom Epstein interviewed while making this deeply personal and political work. In a time of alarming national division, the book describes diverse communities in local fights against land destruction, united in a common if unspoken understanding that how we treat the land is intimately linked with how we treat one another.
I have struggled to find a common thread to help explain the violence I have seen throughout our country and much of the world for that matter and the cultural divides that seem to threaten the very idea of a social contract, Epstein said. I have found that when I looked at how we treat nature itself, and the ease with which we have destroyed much of our natural landscape, I could create a visual explanation for what we are doing to one another. These photographs were an effort to describe a moment in time where our willingness to protect nature also revealed a bond that we share with one another, often across great distances.
Interspersing striking photographs of protest and human conflict with stunning images of the land itself, Property Rights begins at Standing Rock. In 2017, Epstein traveled to the frozen plains of North Dakota to make images and conduct interviews on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, where indigenous peoples and their supporters were protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. Against the vast landscapes of the Dakota plains, he photographed multiple generations of activists at the protest camps protecting their sole water source, the Missouri River, and their sacred lands.
In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Epstein stayed with a ministers family while they led a protest against the eminent domain takeover of local land for the construction of a corporate pipeline. Over several years, the family organized peaceful yet ardent resistance actions, where Epstein photographed priests and children being arrested. In the American south and west, Epstein photographed the effects of climate change manifest as wildfires in California and flooding in Louisiana and Georgia; as well as land and homes that were destroyed, and residents forced to seek refuge.
On the Island of Hawaii, Epsteins work examined the stand-off between the state and indigenous Hawaiians over a plan to add a fourteenth telescope to the agreed-upon thirteen in existence. Led by their elders, the native Hawaiians, historically explorers and scientists themselves, staged a unique protest. It was not against the scientific use of Mauna Kea, but against the addition of a gargantuan telescope they believed would corrupt the mountain, their most sacred charge.
Returning to the mainland, Epstein photographed the aftermath of Pittsburghs Tree of Life Synagogue shooting. There are images of Jewish mourners and yellow police tape wrapped around the Synagogues trees and architecture: a crime scene that echoes Americas past racialized trespasses and massacres.
Finally, Epstein returns to his hometown, New York City, in the midst of the Covid pandemic. As protests erupted across America following the murder of George Floyd, Epstein photographed the urgency and passion of the Black Lives Matter movement on the streets of New York.
Property Rights is the third in Epsteins trilogy about 21st century America that began with Family Business and American Power. The first work examined how the American dream went awry for a generation of hardworking middle-class men like the artists father in the former industrial boomtown of Holyoke, Massachusetts.
In the second work, Epstein investigates how electrical power is made and used, and at what cost. To make the first two series, he entered unfamiliar worlds Puerto Rican families living in his fathers low-rent buildings; Holyokes municipal government; nuclear power plants; and heartland neighborhoods in the shadow of coal stacks.
In Property Rights, Epstein explores American life during the Trump administration. He finds a country seemingly broken but also ready to acknowledge the historical roots of todays cultural conflicts, and their tie to the natural environment. In this work, Epstein suggests that American society might be best understood through its relationship to the land. Property Rights presents a searing but hopeful portrait of a people committed to the fight for social and environmental justice.