Almost as soon as the first 19th-century tinkerers figured out how to fix light and shadow onto glass and paper, they aimed their cameras out toward their surroundings. The landscapes they recorded, close to home and on exotic, distant continents, breathed new life into the expression "picturesque."
With the notable exception of one intrepid French balloonist, these early landscapists recorded the topography of their surroundings from their customary vantage place — firmly rooted to the earth. Emmet Gowin, an heir to the exception, not the rule, has chosen the more lofty point of view. His exhibition of aerial photographs of the American West opens this week at the Art Museum, Princeton University.
Also featured are individual shows by landscape photographers Robert Adams and Thomas Joshua Cooper. All three shows open Tuesday, February 3, and continue to March 22. Curator Toby Jurovics notes that all three artists are recognized internationally as among the most trenchant interpreters of the contemporary landscape, yet only one, Emmet Gowin, has been a feature of the Princeton landscape for some 25 years.
A resident of Newtown, Pennsylvania, Gowin has taught in Princeton’s visual arts program since 1973, moving forward all the while on a professional path that earned him a major retrospective in 1990 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 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 Danville, Virginia, that first brought him to prominence, to his latest, bird’s-eye views of the planet we all call home.
"The first time I flew over Jerusalem, I told my pilot, `I feel like I’m an angel coming to see the body of a helpless child,’" says Gowin, with characteristic passion, in a recent conversation. "The body of the earth is a thing that should be so close to you, that to be able to be an observer to it is so right to me. I don’t feel that the earth is something inanimate or distant, but intimately connected to our self."
Gowin says his move to aerial photography "was not a conscious or a very big transition." During the 1970s, when he was photographing the European agricultural landscape, several people asked him if his images were taken from the air. The question provoked laugher — it was so far from the way he was actually working — setting up a big lumbering view camera on an immobile, supporting hillside. "I realized then that I had been in search of landscapes with more distance," he says.
Gowin’s aerial work began in earnest in 1980 when he began to record the terrible beauty of the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens. A subtle shift followed, which occurred during a failed attempt to photograph the mountain again in 1986. Prevented from reaching the mountain, his experienced and willing pilot took him over the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, the facility that refined plutonium for the nuclear weapons program.
Beginning with this flight, Gowin was inspired to search the contemporary
landscape for its hidden dualities."In searching out the military industrial complex, I had the imaginative forgetfulness of an Easterner who had never taken seriously the fact that there were ICBM’s beneath the soil of the United States."
Over the years, he has moved from mountains to missile silos, munitions storage sites, and nuclear power plants, to pit mines, water treatment plants, and industrial-scale pivot agriculture. While these photographs document humankind’s ability to affect massive changes to the earth and environment, they are also sensitive to the slower but more deliberate actions of the natural world.
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. Gowin and his wife, Edith, are the parents of two adult sons, all long-time members of the Newtown Quaker meeting.
As with so many features of his life’s path, Gowin met his vocation by happenstance. He recalls how photography was little valued as a fine art in the 1960s when, as an undergraduate at the Richmond Professional Institute in Virginia, it was a required course. While other students balked, Gowin had once taken a brief interest in photography and had been struck by its capacity for symbolism. Returning to it again at this youthful moment, Gowin says he immediately recognized its power.
"I felt a strong sense of having a secret understanding that photography was extremely powerful because it linked the imaginative world with the factual in a way that a drawing or a painting does not. I felt immediately that it bore the ability to carry what we ourselves could never say," he recalls.
"The photographers who meant the most to me — Alfred Stieglitz, Harry Callahan, and Frederick Sommer — were the people who believed that there was a transcendent presence in the sheet of paper," says Gowin. "That something had come into being there, and the world would be different if it were not for that sheet of paper. That’s a statement of faith. It’s very powerful, and that’s the concept with which I aligned myself."
Dedicated to finding a balance in his own compositions, Gowin also works toward urging a balance in public exploitation of natural resources. His landscapes explore the boundary between factual photography and what he calls "double vision."
"This is a world of exact visual documents," he explains, "which may, nonetheless, open a window on an invisible world of order and mystery."
The Princeton show includes Gowin’s first images of Hanford, images of a weapons disposal site at the Tooele Army Depot, a chemical weapons plant in Colorado, and Minuteman II missile silos in Montana and Colorado. Perhaps the most searing example of the "double vision" of war and peace that Gowin’s work provokes is his photograph of dry land wheat farming in the Cheyenne ICBM Missile Field in Colorado. The most recent works on exhibit are images of the Nuclear Test Site
in Nevada, made in 1996 and 1997.
Gowin’s subjects reveal only part of the story, for he is also one of America’s finest photographic printmakers. Using a sophisticated toning process that separates multiple tones across the image, his so-called monochromatic pictures are charged with a rich palette of luscious overtones. In a photograph of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the Columbia River seems to shimmer with the unnatural variegated colors of an oil slick.
Thus far in his airborn experience, Gowin has known and worked with three pilots who have died in the course of their work, but this has not diminished his passion for the air. "They all died doing something extremely dangerous," he notes. "We never did anything dangerous together."
"Strangely, I feel a great peace being in the air. I feel relaxed — not queasy or nauseous. I feel that I’m doing the work I should do, and that I can only be learning when I’m learning in this way. Feeling that you’re doing the right thing allows you to relax into the peculiarities of your own life."
Gowin’s missile and munitions photographs have been widely recognized as a strong pacifist statement. Yet they speak in the quietest of tones. Is the artist ever tempted to shout out his meaning?
"My fans would rather sometimes that I would scream or shout," he replies, with a soft laugh. "But I don’t think I believe in political art. You could very easily move into a belief that you and your artwork are responsible for changing the world — but you are only responsible for your own behavior. This is why art serves art better than it serves politics."
Yet in order to obtain permission to photograph the awe-inspiring Nevada Test Site, Gowin marshalled all the resources of art and politics. Nevada was the site of above-ground testing from the early 1950s until 1957. (Estimates of the number of such tests range from the official 100, to as many as 600.) After 1957, underground testing continued until the international moratorium of 1992.
The original idea of photographing the test site was born back in 1988 when Gowin flew close to it during a flight with a friend. "I came back to the university and asked Senator Bill Bradley and other members of the Princeton humanities faculty to help me. Bradley helped me with a letter. The faculty sponsored me and tried to present my case." Chance once again intervened.
"My timing was wrong. I arrived there in 1988 on the same day that the New York Times revealed that DuPont had been releasing tritium into the atmosphere for 30 years — and that the Department of Energy had been covering it up." With the DOE on the defensive, he says any possibility of cooperation that day was eliminated.
"I let it go. I thought it was something they’d never do. But in 1995 I felt compelled to write to them again. The Cold War had changed so drastically, but they still were all but ready to turn me down," he continues. He spent another year in correspondence, obtained an appointment with an official at the site, and drove out from California to meet him.
"The man had forgotten — it turned out it was his day off. But I felt strangely enlivened that day. The guy wasn’t there, he’d forgotten the appointment, but he ended up presenting my case. You just never know. The world is put together strangely. And someone had a sense of my seriousness and sincerity." With this boost his credentials were eventually approved. "We’re going to take a chance," he was told, and allowed to proceed.
Gowin photographed the site first in January, 1996, with further work in December, 1996, and January, 1997. What he saw from the air was not anything he could have anticipated.
"I was way wrong in my imagined landscape," he says. "Seeing it for the first time, I expected to see the desert scarred by all those above ground tests. I expected to see force lines in the sand. I knew that at the Trinity site the sand had melted and fused into glass. But at Nevada they had scraped up and buried all this material — it’s more manicured.
"I asked them to provide captions for my pictures. And once they saw the pictures, they realized that no one had photographed it like this before. Now they’ve become allied to my purpose. After all, their mission is accomplished. The Cold War has been stood down. And it’s getting to the point that features on the site are almost being forgotten."
Has the end of the Cold War irrevocably changed the military-industrial complex he has documented?
"I don’t really know," says Gowin, "but it’s clear that many of those silos are now being dismantled, and for a good reason. In any modern sense they were totally meaningless. Every one had a counter missile aimed at it. It could only have led to a mutual over-destruction.
"As a pacifist in spirit, I don’t think I can understand the broad implications of having those missiles."
Having his work exhibited with landscapes and seascapes by Robert Adams and Thomas Cooper is fitting. Gowin cites each as among the most important people working in landscape photography. And they, too, share his propensity for showing the landscape as it is, rather than as he would like it to be.
"In spite of the seriousness of the consequences of what’s happening to the earth, most people will recognize that these photographs are fundamentally optimistic," says Gowin. "They’re about photographic beauty, the wonder of the world as it is, despite the degradation and the things that have happened. And yes, you doubt if the world can sustain an unending litany of this kind of behavior. But the world is miraculous still."