Emmet GowinEdith, 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.

Emmet Gowin Edith Danville, Virginia 1971

When I study Gowin’s work I am always struck by its deep reverence. Whether his subject is his wife Edith, or various members of her family or his later aerial landscape, each image is treated with the same quiet wonder.

In Edith Danville, Virginia 1971, Gowin’s wife stands in the doorway of a dilapidated shed and pisses on the floor—the scene is handled with a quiet awe rather at odds with ‘taboo’ of enjoying the sight of someone urinating.

Whether intended or not, it strikes me that this is reverent watching is not at all unlike the way pissing is commonly depicting in pornographic media.

The actress informs her partner she ‘has to pee’ and moves several steps away to stand with her legs spread wide or more often than not to squat. With this movement her body transforms from the discrete catalogue of penetrable orifices and denuded erogenous zones it is likely to have been presented as for most of the scene to something whole and complete. She gazes down at her cunt, or looks away from the camera like Edith—breaking her near constant, self-conscious awareness of the spectator. She begins to piss but by the time she remembers she is expected to be self-conscious, the camera has begun to zoom in on the fluid ensuing from between her legs.

‘Having to pee’ is, unequivocally, a need. Given the raison d’etre for porn—manufacturing male pleasure—admitting that women have needs is unusual. Admittedly, sexualizing yet another aspect of female bodied experience is problematic, but for me that is trumped by how hot it is when porn—however tenuously— implies the truth: nothing provides more pleasurable than meeting the needs another.