Mitch Epstein

Book Review Mitch Epstein – In India

© Mitch Epstein

“In India, I began crossing borders, entering lives and worlds I didn’t understand” – Mitch Epstein

─── by Josh Bright, January 28, 2022

Steidl presents a collection of Mitch Epstein’s chromatic photographs of India.

One of the most perceptive practitioners of our time and a key figure within the color movement of the 1970s, Mitch Epstein is an American photographer who has spent the better part of five decades capturing the complexities of life in his homeland and beyond.

Color photography by Mitch Epstein, Churchgate Station, Bombay, Maharashtra 1989, woman in yellow dress, from the Steidl book, In India
Churchgate Station, Bombay, Maharashtra 1989

Though perhaps best known for his penetrative photographs of America, it is in his depictions of India, where his artistry and dexterous eye for color is perhaps most articulately conveyed.

Like so many Westerners of his generation, India held monolithic status within Epstein’s youthful psyche, its intoxicating ‘otherness’, providing escapism from what he brands his ‘disaffected American adolescence’.

Mitch Epstein, color photo of family in car, photography, India
Mitch Epstein. Shravanabelagola, Karnataka, India, 1981. Courtesy Black River Productions, Ltd. / Galerie Thomas Zander / Mitch Epstein

He imbibed its essence through the music of Ravi Shanker, whom he saw performing at Woodstock in 1969; in Cartier-Bresson’s sensitive, mid-century descriptions of the nation, and through initiation into Transcendental meditation in Schenectady New York (at a cost of $35.00) inspired by footage of The Beatles visiting the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at his Indian ashram.

Color photography by Mitch Epstein, Ahmedabad, Gujurat 1981, men riding motorbike from the Steidl book, In India
Ahmedabad, Gujurat 1981
Color photo by Mitch Epstein, Rekha, Bombay 1984, woman smoking, from the Steidl book In India
Rekha, Bombay 1984
Color photo by Mitch Epstein, Taxi Driver, Kutch, Gujarat 1984, from the Steidl book In India
Taxi Driver, Kutch, Gujarat 1984

He first visited the country in 1979 to visit his Indian girlfriend Mira, whom he met in Massachusetts where she was studying, some years earlier. Armed with a medium format camera and a few hundred rolls of film, he began documenting this new land in vivid, chromatic actuality.

A short while later, Epstein and Mira married, and, over the course of the next decade, he returned for extended sojourns on seven different occasions, capturing thousands of images and producing three films, in collaboration with his film-producer wife.

Color photography by Mitch Epstein Honeymoon Couple, Nishat Gardens Srinagar, Kashmir, India, 1981
Honeymoon Couple, Nishat Gardens, Kashmir 1981

In 1987, Aperture published In pursuit of India, a collection of these works, yet it represented a mere fraction of his Indian assemblage. And, in 2020, confined by the constraints of the pandemic, Epstein revisited his contact sheets and quickly came to the realization that a follow-up was imperative.

It is, in his own words, a ‘more expansive, personal reading’ of his Indian work, one that he was only able to make with the benefit of distance and time; that is to say, two decades in the geographically and culturally faraway surrounds of his homeland.

Mitch Epstein, color photo of Republic Day Parade, New Delhi 1984, India.
Republic Day Parade, New Delhi 1984
Color photography by Mitch Epstein, Bollywood Mural Painter, Bombay 1983 from the Steidl book, In India
Bollywood Mural Painter, Bombay, Maharashtra 1983
Color photo by Mitch Epstein, Cafe, Bombay, 1983 from the Steidl book, In India
Cafe, Bombay, Maharashtra 1983

His images are inceptions of a binate gaze, revelatory of his unique position as both an insider and outsider. Far from a tourist, his marriage and family life afforded him an intimacy with the country, yet, at the same time, as an American, he was able to navigate all corners of a complex and segregated society, unburdened by the trammels of class, caste, and religion.

Traversing such diverse settings as the Royal Bombay Yacht Club; Bollywood movie sets; cabarets, and religious sites and festivals of different faiths, he captures a convergence of worlds, a kaleidoscopic mosaic, unsequenced, and free, a contrast to some of his more ‘formalized’ bodies of work.

Color photography by Mitch Epstein, man overlooking the Arabian Sea, and sunset, from the Steidl book, In India
Arabian Sea, Bombay, Maharashtra 1983

Transcribed in his vernacular visual language, in the veracious tones of Kodachrome film, they display his prodigious perceptivity and painter’s eye for color, which rivals that of his more celebrated contemporaries.

Appositely presented in 28 x 31.5 cm format by Steidl, In India, is a profound ode to a country with which the photographer has shared a long and intimate relationship; a place he knows so well yet will forever remain filled with mystery.

All images © Mitch Epstein

In India is available now via Steidl