Family Business

In the summer of 1999 two teenage boys started a fire in an apartment building in the town of Holyoke, Massachusetts. The fire spread and destroyed an entire city block, including a 19th century Catholic church. The owner of the building was sued for 15 million dollars he did not have, and was forced to liquidate his other once successful but now failing business, a furniture and appliance store, the largest in western New England; and at 82 years old, became at risk of being put out on the street.

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The building’s owner was Bill Epstein, artist Mitch Epstein’s father. Through the use of large format photographs, video, interviews and journals, he embarks on a journey to try to understand not only the demise of a dynasty, but of the American Dream itself. The tragedy of his family is echoed in the town of Holyoke, having been transformed from an industrial and commercial center into a drug-riddled town, with one of the highest rates of arson, high school dropouts and teenage mothers in the country.

The photographs and the writing give a harrowing look into the ecosystem that revolves around the Epsteins: The empty furniture store, the clerks and people that work in it, the boarded up buildings, the workers who maintain them, the families that live in them, and members of the police and city officials, many of whom were allies and partners with Bill in his fight to eradicate violence and drugs in the community.

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The book, published by Steidl in 2003, is divided into four chapters: store, property, town and home. In them Epstein navigates between his family’s complicated dynamics, their relationship to the immigrant workers that are employed by Mitch’s father, and the tenants that live in the buildings owned by them.

Mitch Epstein was born in 1952 in Holyoke, Massachusetts. His work has been shown in museums and galleries worldwide, including The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art. He has also won numerous awards, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002 for Family Business and the 2004 Krazna-Kraus Best Photography Book of the Year award for the book of the same name.

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