Emmet Gowin (born 1941) is an American photographer. He first gained attention in the 1970s with his intimate portraits of his wife, Edith, and her family. Later he turned his attention to the landscapes of the American West, taking aerial photographs of places that had been changed by humans or nature, including the Hanford Site, Mount St. Helens, and the Nevada Test Site. Gowin taught at Princeton University for more than 35 years.
Gowin was born in Danville, Virginia. His father, Emmet Sr., was a Methodist minister and his Quaker mother played the organ in church. When he was two his family moved to Chincoteague Island, where he spent much of his free time in the marshes around their home. At about age 12 his family moved back to Danville, where Gowin first showed an interest in art by taking up drawing. When he was 16 he saw an Ansel Adams
photograph of a burnt tree with a young bud growing from the stump. This inspired him to go into the woods near his home and draw from nature. Later, he applied what he learned from his early years wandering in the woods and marshes to his photography. A student of his said "Photography, with Emmet, became the study of everything."
After graduating from high school he attended the Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University). During his first year in college he saw a catalog of the Family of Man
exhibit and was particularly inspired by the works of Robert Frank
and Henri Cartier-Bresson
. About this same time he met his future wife, Edith Morris, who had grown up about a mile away from Gowin in Danville. They married in 1964, and she quickly became both his muse and his model. Later they had two sons, Elijah Gowin (also a photographer in his own right) and Isaac.
Some of his earliest photographic vision was inspired by Edith's large and engaging family, who allowed him to record what he called "a family freshly different from my own."
He said "I wanted to pay attention to the body and personality that had agreed out of love to reveal itself."
In 1965, Gowin attended the Rhode Island School of Design. While earning his MFA, Gowin studied under influential American photographers Harry Callahan
and Aaron Siskind
. Three years later he was given his first solo exhibition at the Dayton Art Institute. In 1970 his work was shown at the George Eastman House
and a year later at the Museum of Modern Art
. About this same time he was introduced to the photographer Frederick Sommer, who became his lifelong mentor and friend.
Emmet Gowin was invited by Peter Bunnell in 1973 to teach photography at Princeton University. Over the next 25 years, he both taught new students and, by his own admission, continually learned from those he taught. At the end of each academic year he asked his students to contribute one photograph to a portfolio that was open to critique by all of the students; he intentionally included one of his own photographs as a reminder that, while a teacher, "he was just another humble student of art."
Gowin received a Guggenheim Fellowship
in 1974, which allowed him to travel throughout Europe. He was also awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1979 and a Pew Fellowship in the Arts in 1994.
In 1980 Gowin received a scholarship from the Seattle Arts Commission which provided funding for him to travel in Washington and the Pacific Northwest. Beginning with a trip to Mount St. Helens soon after it erupted, Gowin began taking aerial photographs. For the next twenty years, Gowin captured strip mining sites, nuclear testing fields, large-scale agricultural fields and other scars in the natural landscape. In 1982 the Gowins were invited by Queen Noor of Jordan, who had studied with Gowin at Princeton, to photograph historic places in her country. He traveled there over the next three years and took a series of photographs of the archaeological site at Petra. The prints he made of these images were the first time he introduced photographic print toning in his work.
Gowin retired from teaching at Princeton University at the end of 2009 and lives in Pennsylvania with his wife Edith.
Gowin has acknowledged that the photographs of Eugene Atget
, Bill Brandt
, Walker Evans
, Robert Frank, Alfred Stieglitz
, and especially Harry Callahan and Frederick Sommer have influenced him.
Most of his early family pictures were taken with a 4 X 5 camera on a tripod, a situation in which he said "both the sitter and photographer look at each other, and what they both see and feel is part of the picture."
These photos feel both posed and highly intimate at the same time, often capturing seemingly long and direct stares from his wife or her family members or appearing to intrude on a personal family moment. Gowin once said that "the coincidence of the many things that fit together to make a picture is singular. They occur only once. They never occur for you in quite the same way that they occur for someone else, so that in the tiny differences between them you can reemploy a model or strategy that someone else has used and still reproduce an original picture. Those things that do have a distinct life of their own strike me as being things coming to you out of life itself."
In an essay for the catalog for an exhibition of his work at Yale University, writer Terry Tempest Williams said "Emmet Gowin has captured on film the state of our creation and, conversely, the beauty of our losses. And it is full of revelations."
Following his marriage to Edith Morris in 1964, Gowin began taking portraits of his wife and extended family in Virginia. Capturing the ordinary yet intimate moments of everyday life, these photographs often resemble personal snapshots: his niece Nancy in the grass with dolls; Edith in their living room on Christmas morning; Edith and her two sisters in the backyard. Apart from their domestic setting and familial subjects, however, Gowin's pictures transcend documentation. Gowin's sensitivity to the nuances of daily events coupled with formally elegant compositions imbue his photographs with particular gravity. Honest, tender, spontaneous, and humorous in tone, they are personal yet universal reflections on the close bond shared between relatives. Some of Gowin's photographs feature images within a circular frame, a visual device discovered by chance in 1967. Allowing the camera lens to dictate the shape of the image, Gowin invites viewers to take a privileged glimpse, as if through a peephole, into his private world.
An influential figure in the history of photography, Emmet Gowin (b. 1941, Danville, VA) received an MFA in Photography from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1967. While at RISD, he studied with photographer Harry Callahan, who, along with Frederick Sommer, became one of his mentors and greatest influences. Since 1973 Gowin has been on the faculty at Princeton University, where he is currently a professor of photography in the Visual Arts Program. Gowin is the recipient of numerous honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (1974), two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships (1977, 1979), a Pew Fellowship in the Arts (1993), the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching at Princeton University (1997), and the Princeton Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities (2006).
For nearly four decades, Gowin's work has been widely exhibited in the U.S. and abroad, with solo shows and retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1971); the Corcoran Gallery of Art
, Washington, D.C. (1983); the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1990-93); the Espace Photographie Mairie de Paris (1992); the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven (2002); the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City (2003); the El Paso Museum of Art (2004); and the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge (2004). His photographs can be found in museum collections worldwide, including the Art Institute of Chicago; the J. Paul Getty Museum
, Los Angeles; the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris; the Metropolitan Museum of Art
, New York; and the Tokyo Museum of Art.
Source: Pace/MacGill Gallery