Emmet Gowin – Edith, Danville, Virginia (1973)
In speaking of his work, Issac Newton famously asserted if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.
It’s one of those famous quotes that much like the ubiquitous inclusion of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken in graduation speeches doesn’t quite mean what most people think it does. For example: people cite Frost because the feel the poem celebrates the worth of the difficulty and hardship of taking the less traveled path, when in fact, the narrator is expressing regret over his choice.
Similarly with Newton, the quote is less the by product of reverent humility and more history’s most notable humblebrag. (Newton plagiarized at least half of the revolutionary ideas history now attributes to him.)
That’s a super pretentious way of introducing the idea of influence on creative endeavors.
I find Gowin absolutely fascinating. His early figurative work is among my favorite photographic work. Conversely, there’s little canonical fine art photography that I detest more than his late-career aerial landscapes.
I can’t look at Sally Mann’s work without seeing the debt she owes Gowin. (It’s no accident that her son is named Emmet.)
And I can’t look at Gowin’s work without thinking of Harry Callahan. (No accident either given that Gowin studied under Callahan.)
All three–Callahan, Gowin and Mann–work competently by envisioning a hybrid of genres; they all focus on family, lovers as well as work that symbolically alludes to existential concerns.
Yet, the small variations in approach and execution speak volumes to the ways in which personal perception affects creative output.
It’s dangerous to deal in generalizations but although Callahan clearly loved Eleanor, there’s something cold and clinical to his images of her. It’s an issue I feel Gowin addressed fabulously–so well, in fact, that it makes me hate his later work even more; he’d figured out how to present something between portraiture and erotica, full of pathos and vitality, yet simultaneously devoid of an sentimentality. Whereas Mann is always working expertly to upend the notion that sentimentality–in and of itself–is anathema to art.
Also, I really love how this is almost certainly a reverse angle featuring the same shed in this stunning photo of Edith pissing–my second favorite Gowin photograph ever.