Having fun with Mitch Epstein
The great American photographer swings by Andreas Murkudis' office to talk "Rocks and Clouds", his mesmerising new book published with Steidl.
Mitch Epstein and Andreas Murkudis are old friends. So much so that when the pioneer of American colour photography dropped by Andreas’ art-filled office to catch up and discuss his new publication, ‘Rocks and Clouds’, he was only too happy to sign a few of his other books as well.
Andreas has long been a devotee of Epstein’s work and boasts an impressive collection of his books. “Rocks and Clouds”, published by Steidl, is a study in durability and transience, shot in black and white around New York City. Here Andreas and Mitch discuss the inspiration behind the project, the photographer’s favourite Berlin haunts, and what 2017 holds for him.
Could you say a little bit about ‘Rocks and Clouds’ and how it began?
It was Robert Smithson’s essay, Frederick Law Olmsted and “The Dialectical Landscape”, that got me thinking about rocks in New York City. Smithson cast Olmsted as the original earthworks artist and Central Park as avant-garde. In the mid-nineteenth century, Olmsted had moved huge erratic rocks there and uncovered mammoth geological formations, which he curated to add a primeval quality to the Park’s fields, forests, and ponds.
I did extensive research on the geological past of the city and where to find visible rock formations. I visited several hundred locations looking for rocks, but only photographed a fraction of them. Although I set out in the morning with a clear plan, I often wandered off track and made unexpected discoveries, which was fun. I’m not beholden to any fixed pictorial idea or typology: my pictures take shape as I compose them on the 8×10 ground glass.
After six months photographing rocks, I knew the project called for a counterpart. I chose clouds because they were the opposite of rocks. Clouds opened up a much broader canvas for the project; they are the most democratic form of nature in the city. I could photograph them anywhere and in conjunction with anything, which meant that I could photograph them in tandem with meaningful elements of the city, be they architectural, human, or natural. The hardest part about clouds was predicting when they’d show up. I had nine weather apps on my iPhone, but none were completely reliable. So research has its limits. A lot of my work is serendipitous.
With the trilogy of trees, rocks and clouds, I wanted to look closely at the inextricability of nature and society in my city — and by extension any city: how do we accommodate nature, alter it, and perceive it? I made pictures in all five boroughs, and found neighbourhoods that I had never seen before. New York is so much more than Manhattan, but Manhattanites rarely go exploring outside their borough.
The significance of time is a key theme. Rocks relate to cosmological time — hundreds of millions of years old and nearly impossible for us to fathom, and clouds — ephemeral and disappearing as quickly as they form.
What did you discover — and rediscover — about New York as you shot the images?
I’ve photographed New York off and on for 45 years starting in the 1970s. When I shot this trilogy in 2012-16, I was dismayed to discover that the city has become even more gentrified and monetised than I’d realised, and too many New Yorkers now have their heads in their phones. But I happily rediscovered the kaleidoscopic nature of New York: on most every block, you’ll find people of different economic levels, ethnicities, and styles. I rediscovered that New Yorkers are really kind to and respectful of others — maybe more now than ever. I felt it when I was out photographing in every borough of the city. Especially in the era of Trump, New Yorkers are profoundly proud of their city’s diversity and ability to, for the most part, peacefully live together. In New York being different or odd is expected; I’d go so far as to say it’s cherished as a sign of freedom — and it makes life more interesting when you go out and don’t know what you’ll find. Conformity isn’t a value most New Yorkers hold.
What does 2017 hold for you?
The year began so precariously in political terms, and it’s hard to say what this might mean for my work. I have already shifted direction in response to the cultural and political climate we are facing in America.
Thankfully, I have exhibitions planned at Galerie Thomas Zander in Cologne and Andreas Murkudis in Berlin during the Gallery Weekend, as well as in Paris at Galeries les Filles du Calvaire this spring and in Bologna in the fall. Steidl Verlag will be launching my monograph Rocks and Clouds this spring. I appreciate that there’s a good deal of interest in my work in Europe.
We’re delighted to feature your book in the store. Is there a book, exhibition or film that has recently excited you?
Last week I saw an exhibition in Chelsea by the Irish artist, Richard Mosse, called Heat Maps. He just finished a film and series of photographs about the refugee crisis in Europe using a high-tech heat sensitive camera developed for surveillance. Mosse composited the odd, cartoon-like imaging from that camera into large murals that take on a character of their own. I found this work strange, mesmerising and sad, and I thought about it long after seeing it.
You had a residency in Berlin in 2008 — do you have any rituals when you visit the city?
It was the people that I met and friends I made during my residency at the American Academy in Berlin that I haven’t forgotten and ritually visit when I come to the city. Berlin, like New York, is a vast labyrinth whose unknown realms also beckon when I visit. The one place I like to ritualistically visit is the Pergamon Museum.