JTF (just the facts): A total of 13 large scale black and white photographs, framed in black with no mat, and hung in the entry, the main gallery space, and one of the back rooms. All of the prints are selenium toned gelatin silver prints made in 2011/2012. The works on view are sized 68×54, in editions of 6+2AP; a smaller 40×30 size is also available for each image (but not on display), also in editions of 6+2AP. (Installation shots at right.).
Comments/Context: It doesn’t take much thinking to quickly come up with a list of photographers across the history of the medium who have made great images of trees. Starting in the 19th century, Fox Talbot, Le Gray, Cuvelier, Watkins, Kinsey, and Muybridge and many others might be the beginning of a small sampler. Cross into the 20th century and the list explodes: Atget, Renger-Patsch, Stieglitz, Strand, Adams (both Ansel and Robert), Sudek, Friedlander, Porter, on and on, evolving into a more conceptual realm with folks like Rodney Graham, Myoung Ho Lee and Robert Voit. With his new work, Mitch Epstein has stepped into this long line of tree lovers, documenting the towering, ancient specimens that hide in and around New York city.
Epstein’s photographs are decidedly old school: large format black and white works, rich in detail and tonality. Most are portraits of the individual trees, capturing their idiosyncrasies and personalities with up close botanical attention. These pictures are classically beautiful, documenting thick trunks, cascading branches, and spindly growths, square in the frame (with just a tiny bit of elevation) and rendered with meticulous care.
The challenge with this kind of perfect image making is that it loses the hand of the photographer. In many of these photographs, it’s hard to see Mitch Epstein. A few of the images step back just a bit to give a sense of the larger human context (a foggy Staten Island neighborhood, the wintry apartment buildings of Washington Square, or a row of Korean storefronts in Queens) and these juxtapositions and small ironies seem to connect better to the ideas in Epstein’s earlier work. There is more of a sense of the tree being surrounded by the encroaching human environment, and persevering/triumphing against the odds, and I found these works more fresh and successful. I think the concept of time scale (that of tree versus that of the city around it) could have been explored even more.
These prints are very large, and I think this is a case where the scale is a bit too much. At this size, there is an opportunity to fall into the pictures, to be drawn in from across the room and enveloped in their stories. I’m sure this was the point, and given the massive size of the trees themselves, I guess I can understand the logic. But I couldn’t help feeling like the photographs were too big, and that a slightly smaller size would have made the encounters less operatic and more intimate.
All in, these are certainly well made, formally strong tree photographs. I think the ones that go further and tell broader contextual tales are more representative of Epstein’s approach to photography, and as a result, I think this subset will be the group that is the most durably intriguing.
Collector’s POV: The 68×54 prints in this show are priced at $28000 each; the smaller 40×30 prints which are also available are $15000 each. Epstein’s work has become more available in the secondary markets in past few years, but the volume of prints for sale has still been very small. Prices for those lots that have come up for auction have ranged between $3000 and $15000.