Emmet GowinEdith, Chincoteague, Virginia (1967)

From a macro perspective Gowin’s work—and excluding his travel/photojournalistic dabbling—features three distinct phases: the photos of his wife Edith and her family (early), the aerial landscapes (mid) and his more experimental work (recent)—which take Edith as subject once again and involving photos of her taken in Panama printed in experimental fashion on handmade paper produce a photograph/gram hybrid, i.e. this print of a photo of Edith including the outline and veins of a decaying leaf.

The more recent work is completely new to me despite being made almost 15 years ago. My initial thoughts are that it is understated and prescient in a way that would be completely unrecognizable as Gowin’s work if drastic reinvention weren’t Gowin’s exact bag.

After the early work, he took just about the most unexpected left turn imaginable and began to make aerial photos. As I recall, it was something he did just because that’s just what he did when something caught his interest—took pictures of what interested him. And while conceptually, I know that part of the consideration with the aerial photos was to contemplate at what point a the representation of a landscape tilted (on balance) over into abstraction.

The truth is the aerial stuff just isn’t very good (subjectively). It’s accepted because Gowin is an established name and the interrogative focus of the work is valid. But I just think that although he was—to the best of my knowledge—the first to contextualize these sort of photos in terms of fine art practice (and is therefore the progenitor), I’ve seen it done better–it’s not photography, it’s sculpture but Susan Hammond comes to mind, just off the top of my head.

I was actually thinking of Gowin due to a conversation I was having with a friend about the relationship between art making and audience, i.e. there is this balance between where your interests lead you and where your viewer or audience will follow you.

The prejudice is that great artists make work for themselves and therefore are attempting to converse with folks 100 years down the road instead of those in the hear and now. Except: that’s kind of elitist and untrue. I mean for all the intensely specific aesthetic considerations of the great Renaissance artists, there work was something that even someone completely uneducated in the ethos and techniques of mastery in various forms of visual representation, were still very much able to approach the work and get something out of it—whether identifying the characters in a Biblical story and associating them with famous wealthy patrons or just appreciating the way the artist envisioned the tableau.

The distance between the present and the future has grown exponentially more compact—the future isn’t 100 years away, it’s now measured in months and years at the outside.

Despite the surfeit of art makers, it’s difficult-to-impossible to make a living making art. More and more of us are working shitty cubicle jobs to keep a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs and food in our bellies. We work when we have the resources (infrequently) and hope for the best.

And I think that’s the lesson that Gowin has to teach us that is so important: I think if you see his model of producing work that attracts people to it, interspersed with deeply, personal, abstract and largely unapproachable work—there is a balance between the two.

I think that’s the most important lesson you can teach up-and-coming art makers: balancing personal passions with work that is universally accessible and empathetic. The dialectical exchange between the two efforts strengthens both immeasurably.

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.