New York Arbor Photographs by Mitch Epstein Published by Steidl, 2013.
If I had a dime for every time a photographer expressed woe over someone else horning in on his or her territory, or refused to even start a project because they were aware of someone else who had "done that, been there," or opined that such and such body of work was uninteresting because so and so had already covered that topic (this last as much a curator's prejudice as a picture maker's), I would have a column of Franklin Ds too tall and wobbly to stand up by itself. The argument doesn't stand up, either—just because everyone else has done something doesn't mean your version won't add value to the depiction of that thing.
I am elated that Mitch Epstein feels the same way, where trees are concerned. I applaud him, and his publisher Steidl, for not veering away from "another tree book;" there is certainly a forest of them already. And probably a grove or two are waiting in the wings, hesitating to emerge for fear of the Schongemacht (an imaginary Teutonic scold) casting shaming shadows on them. Epstein invests his images with an elegance and a contextual intelligence that highlights the character of individual trees apart from the overarching canopy of them that most pedestrians glide beneath with little more than casual appreciation for the shade.
Epstein embraces a century-old approach to the subject, to boot. He sees New York City's trees as "the city's central characters," pre- and likely post-dating most of its current human inhabitants. Through his deliberate study, using a view camera and black-and-white film (the latter for the first time in four decades), the photographer came to experience what he describes as an "[inversion of] the usual human-centric view of urban space." That is, trees rule, man drools. In a manner of speaking.
He also—another bravo here—names and claims his artistic forbearer, the pioneer of this urban, photo-arboreal modus operandi. Again, in Epstein's words (his Afterword is exemplary as self-narrative), "It's impossible to understate [sic—I might have suggested "overstate" here, though maybe Epstein's passion for trees inverted some linguistic hierarchies too] the influence of Eugène Atget on these pictures." He never apologizes for admiring either the Parisian visual chronicler or Manhattan's dendritic population. Looking at this book could do us all a lot of good; besides reminding us of the need to stay open to fresh perspectives, and despite its absence of color, it might even make us a little greener as we recover respect for Earth's endurance even in its most severely tested locales.
George Slade , a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is a photography writer, curator, historian and consultant based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He can be found on-line at http://rephotographica-slade.blogspot.com/