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Sunshine Hotel: Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Book Review Sunshine Hotel Photographs by Mitch Epstein Reviewed by Blake Andrews Cass combines her poetry and photography, images of botanical and zoological specimens, and early 1900s glass plate negatives and journal excerpts by pioneering prairie ecologist Frank Shoemaker.
Sunshine Hotel. By Mitch Epstein.
Sunshine Hotel  
Photographs by Mitch Epstein

Steidl/PPP Editions, 2019. In English. 264 pp., 175 illustrations, 12x12¼".

When you’ve been making photos for as long as Mitch Epstein has —just over a half-century and counting— your archive is likely to be enormous. As time passes, previously disregarded photos take on a fresh air. New themes take shape, images are re-combined in novel ways.

Such is the inspiration behind Epstein’s latest offering Sunshine Hotel. This is a career retrospective, but with a twist. Epstein’s oeuvre has been broken down into individual photos, and then reorganized from scratch by an outside curator. The man for the job, in this case, is Andrew Roth, respected critic and photo aficionado, perhaps best known for the seminal photobook The Book of 101 Books. Tasked here with putting a fresh spin on old material, Roth passes with flying colors.

Sunshine Hotel. By Mitch Epstein.

“For a long time, I’d wanted to break my pictures out of their structured series and put them together on different terms, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it,” Epstein explained during an interview with Document Journal. “Andrew saw it clearly. He laid the groundwork for the sequencing, and broke the established order of my past chronology and projects. […] A madness builds in the book, which is intentional; every picture and placement was highly considered. That said, there is no one reading to any picture, juxtaposition of pictures, or sequence.”

Sunshine Hotel. By Mitch Epstein.
Photos stripped of context and chronology, considered only on their own merits. Such a treatment —closer in spirit to Instagram than traditional, concept-based projects— is quite liberating. Unfettered and set loose on the pages, Epstein’s photos make all sorts of exciting connections. His famous World Trade Center photo becomes less a study of American grandeur than a formal duality. It’s followed by two tracks in the snow, two roads bridging a desert chasm, then a similar road fronting a reservoir, and so on. Another short passage sequences crowd shots, transforming Epstein’s well-known photo of a grinning soldier —a Vietnam war commentary in its previous life— into yet another street study.

There are 175 such photos in the book, cleverly sequenced into 14 passages of varying length. Some of the connections are obvious, while others are more subtle. Regardless of sequence, the individual photographs are strong enough to stand on their own. There are several dozen old favorites included, and a few score more will be familiar to general photo buffs. But there is still more than enough unseen work included —roughly half the book— to entertain even the most jaded Epstein fans.

Certainly, Roth’s treatment strips Epstein’s photos of their emotional resonance. There’s none of the gut-punch power here of, say, Family Business or American Power, severe commentaries on the American dream. But for me, the trade-off is worth it. It’s nice to set aside societal issues for a moment and just enjoy photographs as photographs. If one wants to wade deeper, Sunshine Hotel also works on that level as a broad 50-year snapshot of American culture through the lens of Epstein.

Sunshine Hotel. By Mitch Epstein.

The sheer breadth of Epstein’s career comes across over the course of 175 photos. He is one of the rare photographers —like Friedlander, Soth, Meyerowitz, and some others— able to attack just about any subject with equal tenacity. Street photos, nature, portrait, monochrome, large format, event, social landscape, etc. Epstein handles all with aplomb, and just about everything is represented here.

For those keeping track, this is not the first Epstein career retrospective. Book lovers who own Recreation (2005) or Work (2007) might wonder if Sunshine Hotel has enough new material to justify the purchase. In my opinion, yes. First, this new book includes a sizable chunk of Epstein’s work from the past 12 years. Second, the reproductions are better than in either of the previous books. The color casts and awkward aspect ratio of the roughly chronological Recreation —how can that fit reasonably on any bookshelf?— have been corrected. Work was a better effort, but in comparison to Sunshine Hotel the photos are smallish, and of course, organized by project. Given the excellent print quality and fresh sequencing, Sunshine Hotel has enough separation from those two books to be worthwhile.

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Sunshine Hotel. By Mitch Epstein.

Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at