© Emmet Gowin/Courtesy of Pace/McGill Gallery, New York
Emmet Gowin has been making photographs of remarkable grace, beauty and mystery for more than 40 years. In a new retrospective co-published by Fundación MAPFRE and Aperture Foundation, Gowin elaborates on his work, and on the importance of a photographer’s intuition, patience, chance and personal engagement. The following excerpts from the book are taken from an artist’s statement that Gowin wrote for his master’s thesis in 1967, and from a lecture he gave on the occasion of his retirement from teaching at Princeton University in 2009.
My age now is 25 and I have been photographing for almost six years. From the beginning I wanted to make pictures so potent that I would not need to say anything about them.
… The pictures are made as a part of living and are not the result of any project or assignment. Most of the pictures were made with a 4 x 5-inch camera on a tripod. In this situation, both the sitter and the photographer look at each other and what they both see is part of the picture.
Before 1965 I had been involved with taking pictures of the momentary—what Henri Cartier-Bresson called the “Decisive Moment.” After taking pictures this way for almost four years, taking pictures with a static camera, of people who knew that they were being photographed, was for me an important change in my interests. More the unique qualities of photography interest me, particularly the mystery in an extremely sharp and detailed image.
The photographs of Eugène Atget, Walker Evans and particularly Harry Callahan have influenced me. I accept and embrace this tradition of photography.
Yet always I want to make my own pictures and to follow my intuition.
I do not feel that I can make pictures impersonally, but that I am affected by and involved with the situations which lead to, or beyond, the making of the pictures.
Often my photographs resemble home snapshots. Many of the people in my pictures are my family or my wife’s family or their friends and I make many pictures of my wife. But I always hope to make a picture that is more than a family record. I feel that my clearest pictures were at first strange to me—as D. H. Lawrence said, “Even an artist knows that his work was never in his mind.” I feel that whatever picture an artist makes it is in part a picture of himself.
Kisses are among the vehicles I would use if I were not able to make pictures.
For me, pictures provide a means of holding, intensely, a moment of communication between one human and another.
I began teaching in Dayton, Ohio, in 1967. Within a week or so of arriving in Ohio we received a postcard from [photographer] Gene Meatyard: “I hear you did a good thesis. Please send it to me in Lexington, Kentucky, and I’ll make an exhibition at my eyeglasses shop.” And I knew enough about Meatyard to say yes. I think Meatyard is one of a few American artists that could fill a pitcher with light. [Editor’s note: The photo Gowin is referring to can be found at http://bit.ly/1bUifPx.] It’s just miraculous. And the whole of his life is a shining beacon. This is miraculous work …
This is, perhaps, my first real image, and there’s a little story to go with it [“Nancy, Danville, Virginia, 1965”]. I’d received my induction papers to go to Vietnam in 1965 … So I packed up my stuff to drive back home to Virginia to argue with the draft board. But before I left I borrowed a view camera from the school … Of course, I was going home to save my life. I wasn’t going home to make pictures … But I got home, and that next evening I made some pictures of a cousin I’d never met. My little niece watched all of this very longingly … That night she crawled up into my lap [and said], “ … Tomorrow, I’m going to think of some really interesting things and you’re going to take a lot of pictures of me.”
I offer this story in this spirit. When a moment of change comes into your life, you can be in a terrible mood and make a great picture. And you can be in the best mood in the world and still make bad pictures. It has to do with something else. [Photographer] Frederick Sommer says, “When feeling is lucid, structure is art.” There’s something deeper than your intentions towards the picture. What you produce in the picture has to be understood in its own terms, and it has to be understood after the fact, because it has nothing to do with intention.
These pictures, from 1965 onward, in some way reflect a thought game … [that] began with a thought about how I would love to see more of the world. I would love to travel deeply and widely. And what is the deepest and widest you can travel? It’s to come back to where you already are. And I saw my own circumnavigation of the Earth, in my mind’s eye, and I realized in that moment that nothing would be more dear to me than where I already was. And, in fact, to anyone else on Earth, where I was—Danville, Virginia—was already as strange and as mysterious as though one of us had arrived in New Guinea. This comforted me in powerful ways. It gave me a sense of patience, which, in a majestic way, Callahan had reinforced for me very early on … [He said,] “Steichen came to me one year to see my new work, and I had to say, ‘I’m sorry, Edward, but I’ve worked hard for a year and yet I only have one new picture.’ Steichen looked at it and said, ‘I think this was worth it. This was worth a year.’” I am always reminded of this story because of this picture from the next year, 1968. I thought I got nothing that summer. Three months; not much. Until I found this picture. And I said, “OK, that’s what Callahan was talking about.” [See photo at http://bit.ly/IDhJZI.]
… What always interests me is the story behind [pictures]. It’s the going to, as Diane Arbus said. The going to places, the going and stepping into mysteries that you don’t understand. Sommer says, “Art is the sensuous apprehension of what we do not yet understand, in the presence of nature.” Or in the presence of reality; I think he would use the words “nature” and “reality” interchangeably here.
… In the summer of 1972, Edith’s grandmother had died, followed in the fall by the death of two of our favorite uncles. And in some profound ways my idea of the “local picture,” or of an intimate picture, of pictures at home, changed beyond repair. Here was a natural end to that. [A] picture, [of a] snow-covered landscape, was made from the treehouse that the children built. I think about what [theoretical physicist] Werner Heisenberg says: “When all is said and done, reality is stronger than our wishes.” And Frederick Sommer says almost the same thing: “Only chance is fair.” Thinking that you know what’s required, what you need, is such a facetious idea. What the children had made, what’s there already, what’s there by chance, is so much greater. I would never have made this picture without the children …
[Philosopher Arthur] Schopenhauer wrote a great essay about the appearance of an intention in a life. He says that when you get to a certain age and look back you see all the things which structured your life that happened truly by chance—which could never have been controlled in any way—and yet from hindsight they look like the chapters in your story. “Who wrote this story?” he asks. And my feeling is in accord with what Sommer would tell you: “It’s what you do every day and in the simplest way that counts. The important thing is quality of attention span and to use that for acceptance rather than for negation.” That’s a totally different mindset, and it’s the mindset that turns the corners and opens doors and opens your eyes. I wanted to begin tonight by quoting from the Gospel of Thomas: “Know what is within your sight and what is hidden from you will be revealed.”
… What we find, we ourselves never knew—it came as a shock, it came as a surprise. It was new. We could never have known what we were going to do before it happened. In that sense, we discover.
… And, finally, this is what I need to say to you. There are things in your life that only you will see, stories that only you will hear. If you don’t tell them or write them down, if you don’t make the picture, these things will not be seen, these things will not be heard.
Emmet Gowin Photo Gallery