New York Arbor: In Conversation with Mitch Epstein
by Aaron Schuman

Autumn 2013

This essay was originally published in Hotshoe Magazine, Oct./Nov 2013.

     For more than four decades, the photographer Mitch Epstein has been intensively investigating everything from daily life in India and Vietnam, to notions of recreation and power within the United States, to the changing character of the late-twentieth century city street, to the collapse of the ‘American dream’.  In his latest body of work, New York Arbor, Epstein – as he describes it – ‘inverts the way we see New York’, compellingly drawing the city’s nature to the foreground, and in doing so, transforms our understanding of the city from a concrete metropolis into a complex, idiosyncratic, but nevertheless thriving ‘urban forest’.

AS: Aaron Schuman
ME: Mitch Epstein

AS:  Firstly, how did you initially come up with the concept for New York Arbor – was there a specific experience, observation, conversation, or even a single image that spurred on the entire project?

ME: Forty years ago, I moved to New York to study art at Cooper Union.  My walks through the city led me to its parks, where trees provided serenity from the never-ending stimulation of the streets.  At the same time, I made weekly visits to the Museum of Modern Art’s Photography Department study room, where I combed through boxes of original prints by Eugene Atget, whose photographs of trees revealed nature as something complex and mysterious; his pictures embodied a tension between nature and the built environment that wasn’t romanticized.  Those walks and Atget’s images laid the first seeds for New York Arbor
     Decades later, I made my body of work, American Power.  I was outraged by what I had both witnessed and gone through for it, and I didn’t want to make another body of work that was rooted in rage.  In American Power trees had become a leitmotif, serving as a foil to energy production and consumption.  But I hadn’t seen this as a guidepost until a few years passed, and I was in the Everglades.  Surrounded by lush tropical trees, I thought about New York City as an urban forest, and the idea to photograph its trees crystalized in my mind.  It suddenly seemed logical to follow a project about the corruption of the human relationship to nature with one that would look harder at nature’s nobility and mystery as it survived, and even thrived, inside our human world.

AS: Photographically, how did your first approach this series, and how did the project evolve over the course of its development?

ME: From the start, I wanted to move the trees away from their role as leitmotiv, and turn them into central characters.  I wanted to invert the way I – and everyone I knew – saw the city.  Trees were our backdrop, and I wanted to bring them to the foreground, and to make the city’s architecture and its people their backdrop. 
     As a starting point, I began researching the city’s oldest trees.  My projects usually begin with a general concept or set of ideas, but I then let the pictures find their language through the process of making the work itself.  As the project developed, I noted the diversity of the city’s trees.  They came from all over the world and were, for me, a metaphor for the social diversity of New York. 
     So then I devised a road map, which led me to distinctive trees in unfamiliar neighborhoods, streets, parks, gardens, and cemeteries throughout the five boroughs.  New York Arbor enabled me to revisit New York City as a subject, to see it freshly, and to treat it differently from the work that I’d done there in the past, in the 1970s and the 1990s. 

AS:  Over the course of your career, working in colour has been central to your practice, yet New York Arbor is shot entirely in black-and-white.  Could you explain your decision to approach this specific project in monochrome? 

ME: From the outset, I had the idea that New York Arbor would be in black-and-white.  Conceptually, I wanted to bring the city’s trees forward formally, and to make them the central characters.  The pictures had to be set in the contemporary urban landscape, yet without the competing distractions of contemporary color.  Also, I was wary of the predominance of green, and the clichés of the picturesque in photography.  The monochrome palette democratized the playing field of content, and enabled me to elevate the trees, while creating a tension between nature and the surrounding city.   

AS: In your work, you seem to oscillate between ‘home’ and ‘away’; i.e. you seem to pursue projects that take you away from New York (even if it's ‘America’ at large, or your hometown) – places where you inevitably can engage with the environment with relatively fresh eyes – and then you return to the city, to ‘home’, to the familiar, but engage with it in ways you haven't tried before.  Could you discuss this strategy a bit, and its importance within your long-term process as a photographer?

ME:  Leaving home has been crucial to my artistic path.  As a teenager growing up in a comfortable suburb in the 1960s, I was drawn to those who lived differently from me.  A formative early job of mine was delivering furniture – I loved having permission to enter strangers’ homes and connect with their lives, even if only for an hour.  My curiosity about other ways of life motivated me to live and work as far away as India and Vietnam in the seventies and eighties.  The time that I spent abroad taught me how to make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange.
     When I returned to my childhood home - Holyoke, Massachusetts – thirty years after I’d left, it was no longer necessary to reject the world that had formed me.  My Family Business project benefited from my having left home and returned as a mature person; I couldn’t have made that work if I’d never left.  It wasn’t easy being home again, but the long distances I’d traveled to Asia – and the very different lives that I’d been living there – gave me a certain, indispensable detachment.  This allowed me to stay sane amid family psychodrama, but also, most importantly, to make pictures that weren’t sentimental.
     In a nutshell, I leave to be able to come home; to see home with a cleansed eye and less emotional investment.  This allows me to make pictures of things that mean a lot to me, and which have the depth and resonance of my connection to them, yet are not over-determined or overburdened by sentiment.  My goal is to keep the picture open, layered and mysterious, so that a viewer can go back to it again and again, and see it differently each time.

AS: In 2005 - in reference to the The City, a body of work that you made in New York during the 1990s - you wrote: ‘Most would agree that there was New York before 9/11…and New York after 9/11.  Oddly the two overlapped in some of my images.’  At the time, you were referring to several subtle, recurring motifs in The City – violence and surveillance – that were especially prescient of things to come, and became particularly relevant post-9/11.  But I'm wondering if you feel that New York Arbor bears any relationship to this idea of the ‘before and after’ versions of New York as well?

ME:  Like every project, New York Arbor has its own ‘before and after’, but it bears more relation to my artistic timeline than 9/11.  Every successful work marks a shift – sometimes radical – in my photographic method and my view of the world.  ‘Before’ New York Arbor, certain things felt off-limits to me, or I simply didn’t consider them.  I hadn’t ever used black-and-white or an 8X10 camera for an entire project.  I hadn’t photographed nature exclusively for an extended period of time.  The thing is, after I’ve done something, I don’t want to do the same thing again.  People still tell me about a remarkable tree they know of and expect me to get excited to photograph it.  But I’m not interested in photographing trees for the sake of it.  I photographed them as part of a conceptual framework – trees in New York.  People like to pigeonhole you: I was the ‘dying-towns artist’, then the ‘power plant artist’, then the ‘tree artist’.  But no single label fits, because once I’ve focused on a subject, I want to move on to a new one.  In the ‘before’, a project feels harrowing; and in the ‘after’ it feels dull, until I figure out something else that I don’t know how to do, which then compels me.


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