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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the January 28, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
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
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 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. www.michenerartmuseum.org. To Sunday, April 4.
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