The Politics of American Property

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Possibly the most important and symbolically potent photograph in Mitch Epstein‘s Property Rights comes at the end of the book, right before the author’s essay. It shows the Robert E. Lee Memorial in Richmond, Virginia after protesters had adorned its base with graffiti and a number of protest placards in 2020. There are groups of Black people visible at the memorial — some posing for pictures, others taking them.

I’m struck by one person in particular, possibly the one easiest to miss. At the left edge of the frame, there is a small child looking at what is in front of her or him. The child is easily dwarfed by everything around, including the monstrosity that is this memorial that was constructed in 1890 — long after the end of the Civil War — and that was finally taken down as a consequence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that had led to its adornment.

The child could not have been cognizant of the meaning of what presented itself in this spot. At that age, the child could not have known that all over the country, its own enemies — defeated in a long and bloody war — had been honoured with these kinds of statues, all in the name of some supposed tradition that, as was clear to everyone, basically meant that if Robert Lee had been on that spot, the child and all the other Black people would not have been.

The fact that until the end of the Civil War human beings — Black people — were considered property in vast parts of the United States has remained as the heaviest unresolved burden of the country’s history, in particular since the defeat of the so-called Confederacy resulted in only a partial fulfillment of what the Declaration of Independence had announced decades earlier: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Since its very beginning, in the country that declared “that all men are created equal” and that they all were “endowed […] with certain unalienable Rights”, the lived reality of large numbers of people has been very different. Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder. I’m writing this article shortly after the Supreme Court invalidated Roe v. Wade, essentially decreeing that in vast parts of the country women have less bodily rights than men. Yesterday, a video emerged that showed a man named Jayland Walker being gunned down in a hail of bullets over a minor traffic violation. Only a subset of men get to enjoy the “unalienable Rights” promised in the Declaration of Independence.

Of course, the United States arose from a number of colonies, making it not the only but certainly the most powerful and wealthy country to have emerged from a settler-colonialist background. The land was taken from those who lived here originally, Indigenous Americans. Property thus emerges as possibly the one entity that gives the United States its own identity.

You can trace pretty much every conflict seen in the US today to questions of property, or more accurately: to an in group not wanting to share the property they have amassed with others and to asserting that the rights derived from it allows them to take even more.  This is the premise of Property Rights.

After a brief prologue, the book begins with a chapter on Standing Rock, which in 2016/17 became the site of protests because of the Dakota Access Pipeline. This is followed by a chapter about the US-Mexican border, crossed daily by numerous migrants in search of a better life.

Not every chapter is literally about a conflict over property. There also are others where property is one or more steps away. There is a chapter on some of the consequences of global warming: wild fires and floods. And there is a short chapter about the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue.

Property Rights thus offers a sweeping panorama of the conflicts the United States has been dealing with over the course of the past ten years, some of them old and re-emerging time and again, some of them brand new but not any less dangerous.

The book mostly features the view-camera photography that its maker has become well known for. It must have been an incredible amount of work to create it (not to mention the resources required to do so). But I usually don’t judge books by how much effort it took to make them. As viewers, all we have are the pictures (plus, in this case, some text), and that’s what we have to go by.

The book is filled with a plethora of very good photographs. Even as I have developed severe concerns about the use of a view-camera (I’ll get to this later), when it’s used well, the results tend to be stunning — as they are here. I suppose the sheer beauty of most of the landscape photographs alone might make people look at the work who otherwise would be turned off by what they perceive of as the artifice of fine-arts photography.

And I want to give Mitch Epstein full credit for his personal investment. It’s one thing to profess one’s concern for urgent issues; but it’s quite another to travel to so many hot spots to put the one tool one knows well to as good a use as possible. Property Rights is an overtly political book by a member of a generation that has often shied away from making political work (even as they might loudly profess their admiration for books like Robert Frank’s The Americans). I think the creation of this book is a very important statement on its own.

That said, Property Rights might well be the last relevant photobook to emerge from the American view-camera craze that started in the late 20th Century and that had predominantly male photographers crisscross the country in search of photographic masterpieces. Even if there are things to be said for the format, its language has now exhausted itself.

The photographic conversation as much as larger societal topics have now moved to an extent that trekking out with some boxy camera that requires absolute stillness (and a lot of money to operate, given associated costs) simply is incapable of capturing the general energy that is in the air. In all fairness, there are some pictures in the book that get at that energy and that it would seem were taken with a different camera (for example, pictures from BLM protests). But even they remain mostly very still, very reserved.

Furthermore, in form Property Rights is almost indistinguishable from the artist’s 2003 Family Business, which I think is an absolute masterpiece. There, Epstein trained his camera on the failing furniture business his father and aunt were trying to maintain, while dealing with a number of disasters in the rental properties the father owned. At the same time, the book is a touching reflection on a fraught father-son relationship.

Property Rights now uses the same format as the book that was published almost two decades ago. But it would have benefited from a more contemporary form, using some of the newly refined tools that photobook makers have been exploring of late. The chapter structure feels too rigid, and it makes seeing similarities between them more difficult than it could have been. The book certainly would have benefited from a much tighter edit.

Crucially, an oversized coffee-table book might not be the best format for a book that is filled with criticism of property and the problems arising from it. Of course, whether it would have been possible to make something different isn’t clear, given that the publisher, Steidl, appears to have dialed in that one formula to make a book (big, thick paper and thus overly heavy, pricey), possibly thinking that a book’s physical heft automatically translates into artistic weight.

I see Property Rights as finishing something that Epstein started out with Family Business. Where the earlier book looks at a family dynamic being made almost impossible to deal with, given the failing family business, the new book now talks about what is becoming very obvious before our own eyes right now: the whole country’s dynamic is becoming more and more impossible, given an incessant placing of property rights above all else, including, crucially, the majority of the people living here.

Even as the family business disappears, Family Business ends on a good note: father and son begin to understand each other, to create that somewhat rickety, yet precious peace and understanding that can exist between previously conflicting family members of different generations. There is not such end note in Property Rights — how could there be? As viewers, we can only hope that eventually, a good end note will be reached as well and that that promise from the Declaration of Independence will finally be fulfilled for every person.

Property Rights; photographs by Mitch Epstein; text by Mitch Epstein and Susan Bell; 288 pages; Steidl; 2021

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