Mitch Epstein & Erik Friedlander, American Power

How do we (em)power our future communities? Epstein and Friedlander's American Power investigates our nation’s cultural relationship to energy

Mitch Epstein and Erik Friedlander met at a coffee shop in New York City in early 2011. Epstein had recently accepted the Prix Pictet photography prize for his photographic series entitled American Power, and he was looking for a partner to envision a musical, visual, and oral exploration of “our cultural relationship to energy.”

Their ensuing partnership was founded on Epstein’s decade long dedication to the subject. It began in 2003 when he came across a small community in Ohio that was, in his words, "being erased" by American Electric Power. The locals had been "paid a lump sum to leave, never come back and never complain in the media or in court if they became sick from environmental contaminants". 

For the next six years he travelled through 25 states across America creating images that reveal the relationship between power stations and the communities in and around them - West Virginia high school football teams practicing in the shadow of coal stacks; Texas wind turbines spinning next to old pumpjacks; an oil rig mangled by Hurricane Katrina.

Friedlander and Epstein’s collaborative work encourages full sensual and cerebral immersion. Performed live, Friedlander’s music accompanies a scrolling series of large-format images from American Power. Using new compositions for solo cello, his musical score draws direct from the source, the power itself - the pace, heat and flow pulsing through electrical, hydraulic, solar and nuclear power grids. The palpitating melodies and startling improvisations unlock a dramatic dimension in Epstein’s images.

As the images cycle through, Epstein shares anecdotes about the towns and people he met on his photographic journey. He explains his encounters with environmental contamination, corporate impenetrability, and security excess. He describes multiple harassments by police and private security as he tried to take photographs of power plants. He laments how, in post-9/11 America, corporate law often seems to supersede constitutional law. He says, ‘I am pressed up against the edge of America’s fundamental freedoms. The open society that I took for granted for 33 years is no longer a given.’

Their large-scale visual narrative examines power from all angles- the overlapping textures of electrical, corporate, civic, religious, environmental, commercial, governmental, and artistic power. They ask, who has control, what do they do with it, and how does it affect the psyche of a nation? Together, Friedlander and Epstein lay bare the core questions that will ultimately determine the fate and fuel of a country teetering between collapse and transformation.

The piece was commissioned by the Walker. For more information, visit American Power.