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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the January 28, 2004

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Emmet Gowin’s Aerial Vision

At the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, the new exhibition,

“Emmet Gowin: Changing the Earth,” introduces us to the fearful

symmetry of human action on the landscape. Aerial photography has been

Gowin’s major focus for the past 15 years. In 1998 the Princeton

University Art Museum mounted a show of aerial images of the American

West, curated by Toby Jurovics. The new, 100-work exhibition,

organized by Yale University Art Gallery and the Corcoran Gallery of

Art in Washington, is the first comprehensive showing of the vast span

of Gowin’s aerial work. It is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated

catalog and remains on view in Doylestown through Sunday, April 4.

Gowin, a thoughtful and erudite artist whose work is suffused with a

humanistic love of life on earth, begins his catalog commentary with

the observation that: “This is the gift of a landscape photograph,

that the heart finds a place to stand.”

Given the grim reality of these devastatingly beautiful images of open

pit mines, poisonous paper mills, and industrial pivot agriculture,

finding a place for the heart is the viewer’s challenge. “Even when

the landscape is greatly disfigured or brutalized, it is always deeply

animated from within,” writes Gowin. And we know he is the man to show

us the “place for the heart.”

Looking down on earth from the lofty perspective of an aircraft,

disfigurement is what Gowin found. In these images the earth’s

sensuous form consistently evokes resemblances to the contours of the

human body — yet this is a body wracked with cuts, bruises, gashes,

scars, blisters, scratches, burns, and even tumors. Commercial

exploitation, nuclear test sites, missile silos, and even recreation

take their permanent toll of the land. Gowin’s aerial views come from

the American West, the South, and also from Kuwait, Japan, and the

Czech Republic.

In her accompanying catalog essay, Western environmentalist Terry

Tempest Williams, who lost seven family members to radiation cancer,

describes Gowin’s oeuvre as “a meditation in elegance and horror.”

“Emmet Gowin has captured on film the state of our creation and,

conversely, the beauty of our losses,” she writes. The resident of

rural Montana describes how she brought the portfolio to her neighbors

to examine, and she records their reactions. One neighbor, Eleanor

Hedden, tells her: “We must work to recover what we have unconsciously

destroyed. Our focus must be on how to heal these places.”

Gowin, and his wife Edith Gowin, are natives of Danville, Virginia,

and long-time residents of Newtown, Pennsylvania. Born just one year

and two miles apart, Emmet’s family raised him in Chincoteague,

Virginia, before returning to Danville in his teens. As Gowin’s

students and lecture audiences quickly discover, he is a passionate

and persuasive speaker who seems to have inherited some of the

rhetoric of his evangelical forbears. Gowin’s father was a Methodist

minister and his maternal grandfather a Quaker minister. The Gowins

are the parents of two adult sons, Elijah and Isaac, and long-time

members of the Newtown Quaker meeting.

Gowin did his undergraduate work at the Richmond Professional

Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University), graduating in 1965

with a thesis on Alfred Stieglitz and his pioneering modernist

photography and publications. Gowin earned his MFA at Rhode Island

School of Design where he studied under Harry Callahan, a photographer

who became his lifelong teacher, mentor, and friend. Early in his

career, Gowin also formed a close bond with the maverick Arizona

photographer and poet Frederick Sommer, who become another important

model and mentor.

Gowin has taught in the visual arts program at Princeton University

since 1973, moving forward all the while on a professional path that

earned him a major retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in

1990. Over the past two decades, Gowin’s esthetic quest has expanded

outward from the series of minutely observed portraits of his wife and

family in rural Virginia to his latest, bird’s-eye views of the planet

we all call home.

Gowin’s introduction to aerial photography was serendipitous.

Commissioned to document the aftermath of the 1980 eruption of Mount

St. Helens in Washington, he found most access to the mountain closed

for safety reasons, and took to the air to see what he could. The

effect of his new, elevated perspective was powerful and immediate.

“As soon as I got into that perspective, I could hardly sit still,” he

recalls. “Everything seemed open, unused and fresh.”

Yet Gowin still did not expect the work to continue past the Mount St.

Helens assignment. Returning from what he thought would be his last

flight over the area in 1986, he took a side trip over the Hanford

Nuclear Reservation — the now-deserted city where uranium was enriched

for use in atomic bombs and nuclear reactors during and after World

War II. The city was once home to 30,000 people. The view of Hanford

was, in Gowin’s words, “a flight that changed my whole perception of

the age in which I live. What I saw, imagined, and now know, was that

a landscape had been created that could never be saved.”

Gowin’s image “Old Hanford City Site and the Columbia River, Hanford

Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington, 1986,” was the first in

a series of aerial photographs that occupied the next 15 years of his

career. He has wedded his art to records of sites around the world

where human intervention has radically altered the landscape of our


These images of military test sites, battlefields, mining areas, and

missile silos raise questions about the essence of nature and about

our role as humans on earth. Devoid of the traditional horizon line

and other elements of landscape photographs, Gowin’s aerial images,

shot on two-and-a-quarter-inch film and printed in a square format. A

master printer, he chemically hand tones his black-and-white prints to

introduce veils of subtle metallic tints that mirror the creeping

toxicity of his subject. These beautiful yet dark abstractions force

the viewer to make personal references, visual associations, and draw

his or her own conclusions as to their meaning.

“I believe that difficult images bring us all closer to shared

experience,” says Gowin. “A picture is like a prayer, an offering, and

hopefully an opening through which to seek what we don’t know, or

already know and should take seriously.”

Ultimately, Gowin says, his images can be regarded as “an open call to

treat the earth, to think of the earth, as a brother or a sister, as

the beloved.”

The major traveling show opened in 2002 at the Yale University Art

Gallery in New Haven, and went on to the Corcoran through January,

2003. The show is accompanied by a hardbound catalog featuring 92

full-color reproductions. Edited by the show’s curator, Jock Reynolds,

the catalog includes an essay by Terry Tempest Williams and an

interview with Philip Brockman, curator of photography and media arts

at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The exhibition has been seen at the

Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City, and at Yellowstone Art

Museum in Billings, Montana. From Doylestown it travels to El Paso,

Texas, Seattle, Washington, and concludes the tour at the Fogg Art

Museum of Harvard University.

Special events at the Michener Museum in conjunction with the show

include a lecture and book-signing by curator and author Jock Reynolds

of Yale University Art Gallery on Tuesday, March 2, at 1 p.m. An

exhibition lecture tour by Michener director Bruce Katsiff takes place

Tuesday, March 16, at 1 p.m.

— Nicole Plett

James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 South Pine Street, Doylestown,

215-340-9800. “Emmet Gowin: Changing the Earth,” a major exhibition of

aerial photography by the internationally-acclaimed Bucks County

artist. Open Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m.

to 5 p.m.; and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Museum admission $6.50 adults; $4

students. To Sunday, April 4.

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