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