He had already created book-length portraits of contemporary Manhattan in The City, and of Asia in Vietnam: A Book of Changes and In Pursuit of India.
Surely documenting Bill, his 82-year-old father, would be a far simpler task.
Epstein traveled from his home in Manhattan to his hometown of Holyoke, Mass., for the sessions, thinking he'd be "in and out in six months."
The occasion for the portrait was the dissolution of Bill Epstein's life's work: a furniture and real estate empire founded by Bill's Jewish immigrant father. Mitch saw an opportunity to shoot his enigmatic, unapproachable dad in the midst of this tumultuous time as the family business, which employed Mitch's father, brother, aunt and a small army of lifelong employees, was liquidated and shuttered.
But things didn't turn out quite the way he expected.
Four years later, Mitch's germ of an idea had sprouted into a tentacled, complex family gothic.
And what began as a slightly aloof desire to use his father as a subject ballooned into a profound psychological reckoning between father and son.
A soft-spoken 51-year-old with gray hair and a charcoal suit, Epstein recently stopped at Atlanta's Jackson Fine Art to publicize a small exhibition of his images from Family Business, the six-month project that blossomed into four years and a 295-page book published by Germany's Steidl.
Family Business records a phenomenon repeated across the nation, where downtowns and local industries die and are replaced by shopping malls and superstores. In the Holyoke that Epstein documents, immigrant communities that once struggled for assimilation and a piece of the American dream now function as parallel universes.
To Epstein, the new wave of Hispanic immigrants shows no desire to conform to American life and at times seems frighteningly detached from the country now called home. Instead of civic pride and hard work, drugs, arson, poverty and teenage pregnancy have replaced the immigrant spirit of the town's earliest arrivals. "There are many, many men like my father," says Mitch Epstein. "And there are many towns like Holyoke."
The project was a kind of reckoning for Mitch. It was as much a re-evaluation of his own work as a fresh look at his family.
"My preconceptions are not necessarily my best friends," he says.
Epstein started the project armed with a 4X5 camera. Within days he realized "that it wasn't really going to enable me to respond to a lot of what was interesting ... dramatic action and exchanges between people."
To capture the chaos of Bill Epstein's clashes with tenants or the frenzied bargaining at the liquidation sale that signaled the end of the family store, Epstein began shooting video, "and that choice opened up a much larger set of doors in terms of the breadth that this project would take on." Mitch also began to record his observations in entries that compose a large portion of Family Business and give it a novelistic sweep.
The book is broken up into chapters -- Store, Property, Town, and Home -- though no amount of structure could contain the psychologically complicated material that makes up the emotional core of the book, about the death of dreams both personal and national.
One of the most poignant images in Family Business is of a carefully folded American flag draped over a hanger and hung in a dry cleaner's bag. The image conveys both a respect for this most cherished and symbolic of icons, but also a melancholy sense that its value as a sign of national cohesion has been retired indefinitely.
"Being American was a glorious thing" for Bill Epstein's generation, says Mitch, a generation that believed, "by simply following the rules and working hard, there would be some kind of success as the result of it.
"As we all know that doesn't always come to be ... ."
Family Business (Steidl Publishing/D.A.P.), 294 pages, $50. www.artbook.com.
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