Book Review: Recreation by Mitch Epstein

At first glance, there’s little in the way of actual recreation to be found in Recreation. Instead of producing a more conventional survey of the different types of pastimes that Americans engage in, as might be expected from the title, Mitch Epstein brings focus to life’s in-between moments. This newly-published re-edited and expanded edition builds on the previous version originally published by Steidl in 2005.  

The book opens with a classic decisive-moment street photograph of a cluster of stylish women on Madison Avenue searching for something on the ground. The metaphor is clear—the photographer also seeks something elusive. The ambiguity and mystery of the photo helps set the tone for the book.

About halfway through, the viewer is presented with another remarkable, enigmatic photograph. A middle-aged man naps on a small fold-out cot beside his Cadillac, just off the West Side Highway, Twin Towers standing tall in the background. It may not convey the concept of “recreation” the same way that the sunbathers on beach blankets on the next page do. However, the sequencing enables the viewer to make a clear connection.

man sleeping beside car near the Twin Towers
West Side Highway, New York 1977 © Mitch Epstein

Recreation really hits its stride around this point, with several particularly strong runs centered around photos from Martha’s Vineyard and New Orleans respectively. Epstein has created a highly thoughtful edit of the work in collaboration with his wife Susan Bell and photographer Ryan Spencer. But it’s best not to flip through the pages too quickly. The photographs quietly demand closer inspection and further interpretation, revealing new meanings slowly over time.

 Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts III 1983 © Mitch Epstein

The book is laid out in a very conventional format: Each two-page spread features one photo on the right-hand page, printed large with a white border. A basic caption delineating the place and the year that the photo was taken appears on the left-hand page. Beyond that, there is little supplementary text aside from a brief acknowledgements section at the end of the book.

For straight photography, something so traditional tends to work well, and in my opinion, the addition of white space, more often reserved for black-and-white work, is an improvement upon the 2005 edition’s full-bleed printing. Still, re-editing and re-sequencing a project is a tricky business. I know from experience that when you revisit work that you’ve published, you can’t stop obsessing over its shortcomings, however few or many, whether real or perceived, and you can’t stop thinking about how you would do it differently given another chance.

Fortunately, Epstein was granted that opportunity. So, how does the new edition compare to the original? That particular compare-and-contrast exercise is worthy of its own think piece, but the short answer is: Overall, it’s an improvement. It’s a more assured statement by a photographer who has a better sense of what he wants to say and how he wants to communicate it.

One significant revision occurs at the end. Originally, the final photograph (Buena Vista, Colorado 1988) featured two men showing off their elaborate model train set, popping out of the scenery like genial demigods. It’s a wonderfully playful image, but not an ending photograph, per se.

Now it’s the penultimate image. Turn the page and you’ll see an equally playful depiction of an older couple at Glacier National Park peering through separate sets of binoculars. The mountains in the distance nicely echo the painted backdrop of the model train set. And this picture brings the project full circle—like the women in the opening photo, the sightseers are also searching for something that you can’t quite put your finger on.

It’s worth noting that Epstein studied photography with Garry Winogrand at Cooper Union in the 1970s. In terms of content and technique, Winogrand’s influence is undeniable in the images from that decade, and Epstein has never been shy about acknowledging that. There are tilted horizon lines, the occasional use of on-camera flash, and an uncanny ability to make order out of the chaos of the streets. Epstein has since branched out to medium and large format photography, but he made these images using a Leica with a wide-angle lens, the classic street photographer’s setup.

Epstein started shooting color while studying with Winogrand, and he helped pioneer the use of color in fine-art photography, along with William Eggleston and others. Epstein uses color in ways that adds depth and meaning, but he doesn’t fall into the trap of making color the overwhelmingly central aspect of his photos. Take, for instance, an image of two dancers in New Orleans. The picture would work just fine in black-and-white. It would be fascinating even without the serendipitous fact that both revelers are wearing pink shirts. However, the bright pink colors create a visual connection between the two and further pique the viewer’s curiosity about the couple and the event.

New Orleans, Louisiana I 1974 © Mitch Epstein

Starting around the mid-1980s, Epstein’s photos become more carefully composed and more polished compared to his earlier work. That’s to be expected, of course. Styles and techniques evolve, and skills improve. Still, it’s exciting to witness this evolution of style occurring within a single body of work.

And while he may not be quite as prolific as Winogrand (could anyone ever be?), a second monograph, Silver + Chrome, is due out from Steidl in September. It pinpoints the moment in Epstein’s career when he made the leap from Tri-X to Kodachrome. This time around, the title is both poetic and descriptive, and it captures the book’s central conceit succinctly. But whatever cavils I might have with Recreation’s less catchy, more generic title, the dynamic and inspired photographs speak for themselves, and the sequencing brings everything together.

Recreation by Mitch Epstein. Edited by Susan Bell and Ryan Spencer. Steidl, 2022. 176 pages, 84 images. Hardcover.

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