Mitch Epstein’s early work was distinguished by a riot of color, but his recent photographs are in a more contemplative greyscale. That chronology only accounts for surface phenomena. Since he began working in the 1980s, Epstein has displayed a Breughel-esque ability to organize chaotic events and tones into cool, harmonious frames. Indeed, his photographs have a decidedly soothing feel – whether shot in color (like his marvelous work in India and eerie study of Vietnam) or black and white (like his more recent project on the trees of New York). As the novelist Anita Desai puts it: “Trapped in…hurly-burly and commotion, [Epstein] makes an island for himself, creates a space in which to be himself so that he may not be crushed and obliterated by all that is around him.”
The dialectic of harmony and flux reappears in his latest project, Rocks and Clouds, on view at Yancey Richardson Gallery until October 22.
In 2004, inspired by Central Park and its designer, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Epstein began photographing ancient rocks across the five boroughs of New York City. Seeking an ephemeral counterpoint, he then turned his attention to clouds.
The great drama of these series, which is shot in a majestically bright greyscale, is that of man’s coexistence with nature. This plays itself out in opposite directions. Photographs like The Hernshead contrast the almost prehistoric landscape of Central Park with the transient lives of people sitting by the water. Those like Clouds #33 and Clouds #88 juxtapose the sky’s passing meteorological rages with the placid and (seemingly) permanent texture of the New York skyline.
As usual, Epstein displays great formal mastery and spatial insight. His photographs are the opposite of traditional landscapes, in that they don’t present the physical world as a flattish tapestry but as an open door or tunnel entrance. Sea and sky travel far into his frames, whereas buildings occupy a thin layer. This has an especially haunting effect in photos like Clouds #55, which shows a building in the Bronx Community College against moody sailing clouds. The message is clear: Our day to day lives may be stable, but time is passing by.