A couple of weeks ago I drove west from my home in Washington, out past Shenandoah National Park, past Signal Knob, the Civil War-scarred tip of Massanutten Mountain, over Great North Mountain, across the West Virginia Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians and eventually down into the Canaan Valley. I’ve done this trek a few times. I think of it as my Mitch Epstein trip.
This time I was doing the drive at night. I remembered from previous excursions that about three-quarters of the way to my destination I would drive past the enormous Mount Storm Power Station, the largest coal-fired power plant operated by mid-Atlantic energy giant Dominion Resources, Inc. The company’s website makes it look almost picturesque. It’s not. At all.
The last time I drove past Mount Storm, over a year ago, it was during the early evening. The sun was still up, but you wouldn’t know it to go past the power plant: The air going past Mount Storm Lake, the plant’s strategically-named cooling pool (where you can go scuba diving because the coal plant keeps the temperature high), was yellow and heavy, kind of pea soupy. The air smelled like something not entirely distinguishable, maybe chlorine.
So far as I know, Epstein has never photographed Mount Storm Power Station but every time I’ve driven past Mount Storm, I’ve thought of Epstein’s Amos Power Plant, Raymond, West Virginia. [Above.] As I told Epstein on this week’s Modern Art Notes Podcast, I think it’s one of the best pictures of the last decade. Epstein and I talked through many of the details of the picture on the show, but not this one: The color of the light in Amos Power Plant is a milky yellow, the same color that light takes on near the Mount Storm Power Station. It’s disgusting.
“American Power” is one of the best photographic series of recent years, one I find myself returning to at all kinds of unexpected moments. Later on that same West Virginia weekend, I hiked Dolly Sods, a mountaintop plateau that was once dense with what were probably the biggest spruce trees in the United States. We cut them down at the turn of the 20th-century. They’ve never come back, replaced by an enormous (and beautiful) bog. From the north edge of the sods, the view leads right out toward Mount Storm, where you look down on the plant and its enormous, smokily flatulent stacks. I thought of Epstein’s Gavin Coal Power Plant, Cheshire, Ohio [above right, 2003], That coal plant was such a pollution monster that the power company that owns it bought out and relocated the town. The whole thing.
Every time I drive past the giant Sunoco refining facility on my way into or out of Philadelphia, I think of BP Carson Refinery, California — that flag! that dead tree on the median!
And as I watched bits of The Masters golf tournament over the weekend, I thought of Epstein’s series again. One of the three Masters golf-club-permitted advertisers on the CBS tournament telecast is ExxonMobil. The energy giant used many of its spots to propagandize about how fracking was an A-OK, super-safe, don’t-sweat-it technique for extracting national gas from the land. As mountains of data from regulators and journalists have made clear, that’s simply false, total corporate-PR hokum.
Our most honest, direct engagement with the impact of energy and its relationship to American power may be Epstein’s series. One of its pleasures is that it manages to be both confrontational and thought-provoking — it’s not agitprop — at the same time.
“American Power” also indicates how our thoughts on industry and pollution have evolved. In the early 1930s, the Ford Motor Company commissioned a series of work from Charles Sheeler. One of Sheeler’s best paintings from that period is Classic Landscape (1931, above left), which is now at the National Gallery of Art. Sheeler presents industry as progress: The dominant, left-to-right, past-toward-future line that leads us into the painting is a railroad track that zips by American’s agricultural past, as represented by grain silos, on its way toward America’s future: industry.
There’s a picture in Epstein’s “American Power” that reads as an updating of the Sheeler. It’s a photograph of the same Amos Power Plant at the top of this post. Like the Sheeler, this Epstein [at right] relies upon some kind of track to provide the viewer with entrance into the image. In Epstein’s picture the track isn’t a diagonal, it runs from the center foreground of the photograph and pulls you into the picture head-on. The track takes you into the coal plant, where it dead ends.