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New Work: What Is American Power?

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In his photo series “American Power,” the artist Mitch Epstein has created a complex portrait of energy production in the United States, its environmental, economic and personal costs, and its complicated role in our politics, culture and national image. Photographed from 2003 through 2008, the series includes views of power plants dwarfing their towns; rows of windmills bordering on unnaturally green playing fields; natural landscapes depleted by mining and drilling; and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast. “I wanted to photograph the relationship between American society and the American landscape, and energy was the linchpin,” writes Epstein in American Power, the book of the series published last year.

Now Epstein has expanded “American Power” into an unusual public exhibition that launches this week, timed to the 40th Earth Day. Titled “What Is American Power?”, the installation presents photographs from the series on 23 billboards in Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio. Each billboard carries a simple URL, WhatIsAmericanPower.com, directing the public to a website that invites them to respond to the question. Designed by Pentagram’s Lisa Strausfeld and Takaaki Okada, and developed by Christian Swinehart, the site provides an immersive context for the project’s content and creates a public forum about notions of power and energy in America today.


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Strausfeld and Okada worked closely with Epstein and the writer Susan Bell to create a website that goes beyond a simple slideshow of images. The design geographically sites the “American Power” photographs at their corresponding locations on a map of the United States. The images initially appear as billboard-like thumbnails on the map, and visitors can “travel” from image to image through the series. The design makes the photographs primary, large and immersive, and images are accompanied by back stories written by Bell that are exclusive to the website. The map format echoes Epstein’s own methods; while working on the series, he had a map of the U.S. hanging in his studio, and marked the shooting sites with pins color-coded to different types of energy production.

Visitors to the site can contribute their thoughts, ideas and reactions via a form, and each respondent’s location is also indicated on the map, making the site an ongoing, and growing, public forum about energy. “We hope to increase public awareness,” says Epstein, “of the toll that energy production and consumption take on our economy, security, health and natural resources; and foster more responsible environmental decision-making through conservation and civic action.”

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The billboard installation’s Ohio location was selected for the region’s economic reliance on coal production, and because the “American Power” series originated in a photo assignment Epstein undertook for The New York Times Magazine in 2003, documenting the dissolution of a town called Cheshire, Ohio after residents claimed contamination from the American Electric Power coal plant located there. The installation is planned travel to other locations in the future.

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Project Team: Lisa Strausfeld, partner-in-charge and designer; Takaaki Okada, designer; Christian Swinehart, developer. Photography by Mitch Epstein; writing by Susan Bell.