/08 Works

Mitch Epstein

Family Business

I was 48 and living in New York when my mother called me about the fire. On a windy August night in 1999, two 12 year old boys had broken into a boarded up apartment building owned by my father in Holyoke Massachusetts and, for the hell of it, set it ablaze. The fire had spread, engulfing a 19th century Catholic church, then a city block.

The 15 million dollar lawsuit the church brought against him threatened to unravel my father’s life. He had insufficient liability insurance. If he lost, my parents would be, in effect, after 50 years of a comfortable suburban life together, out on the street.

I had left Holyoke at 18 and gone home in the intervening years only for holiday dinners. Faced with the family crisis, I went back to help, but there was little I could do. I became possessed, however, by one simple question: how had my father, once owner of the largest furniture and appliance store in western New England and former Chamber of Commerce Businessman of the Year in 1974, ended up a character out of an Arthur Miller tragedy?

The fire prompted me to make a series of large format photographs and a video installation about my father’s life to better understand the path he had traveled. Crucial to his story is that of Holyoke itself. The commercial center died in the 70s, its customers gone to the new supermall. Holyoke became a crack-riddled, arson-wrought town. A recent wave of immigrants turned the formerly “white” downtown Hispanic. The culture clash resonates in the relationship between my Jewish American father and his Puerto Rican tenants and employees.

Many people familiar with Family Business have asked how my family reacted to it. Some family members felt violated or overexposed. The most important response, not surprisingly, was my father’s. When I gave him the book, he sat in his armchair and read it straight through. After an hour and a half, he raised his head, and it was impossible to interpret the intensity on his face. My wife asked if he was alright. “Yes,” he said, “It’s painful to read some of it. But I respect it.” He stood up, shook my hand, and congratulated me. My father, exposed more thoroughly and, to a certain extent, mercilessly, than anyone else in my family, accepted and even, it soon became clear, embraced what I’d done. Having watched me make Family Business, he now knew the hard labor and long hours involved in making art; and this new understanding of my work process contributed to his appreciation of the book. And not least of all, he felt vindicated. He had lived through a kind of hell and the book made him feel there was something to show for it. His story was told, others would know what he’d been through.