Emmet Gowin

List Gallery
Swarthmore College
February 28- April 1

Emmet Gowin at List Gallery (2012)

The List Gallery at Swarthmore College is currently showing a broad career-spanning exhibit of the photographs of Emmet Gowin. The show is thoughtfully displayed in the two serenely minimal rooms that make up the gallery. The first gallery space upon entering is hung with Gowin's environmental photography ranging from 1986 to 1997. This is not the intimate family based work that Emmet Gowin is widely known for and I like the fact that the List Gallery opens the visitor's experience with the less familiar. I had seen a few of these images in books, but was completely unprepared for the impact of the actual prints. Similar to the experience last year seeing Edward Steichen's prints for the first time at the Metropolitan Museum. No book or internet search can match the visual beauty of Steichen's work, and I felt the same way looking at Gowin's prints. 

Aerial Photographs (1986-91)

The images are stunning to look at and their self-contradictory nature can be somewhat confounding. These are images of vast environmental destruction. They document enormous examples of ways that humans have negatively impacted the land, and yet the photographs are stunningly beautiful.There are images of the Nevada Test Craters at Yucca Flat that could easily be mistaken for NASA Lunar photography. Other images resemble detailed etchings of historic western landscapes, enhanced to that effect by Gowin's subtle use of toning. I loved these images and have a new appreciation for this body of work.

Edith (1967, 1971, 1994)

Upon entering the second exhibit room familiarity immediately returns with classic images of Edith, Elijah, Maggie and other family members, mostly taken in Virginia during the early 1970's.  These are the images we associate with Emmet Gowin, and the collection displayed in this exhibit does not disappoint.  Mixed in with iconic photographs such as Nancy, Danville, Virginia (1969) are several unpublished family portraits, as well as silver gelatin images of Edith from as recently as 2000 that show a beautiful continuum to the early series.

Nancy, Danville, Virginia (1969)

Working around the room, I was delighted to discover a transition into digital photography. Two remarkable images from 2002 called Edith and Moth Flight, are shot with a slow shutter speed, capturing the flight paths of moths attracted to a light placed behind Edith. They are mysterious and timeless.

Edith and Moth Flight (2002)

Digital images of Edith taken on trips to Panama from 2001 to 2005 represent a unique switch in format. These are lush gold toned salt prints on handmade paper, and are a complete departure from a recognizable Gowin authorship. (if there is one). Gowin has continued to push new territory throughout his career, never resting on trusted formula.

Edith in Panama (2001-2005)
Mariposas Nocturnas (2007-2010)

The last four images in the exhibit are presented in a grid not unlike the typology format of Bernd & Hilla Becher.  Each index in the set of four on display contains twenty five beautiful images of Mariposas Nocturnas, or nocturnal moths.  Gowin's interest in documenting a typology of moths dates back to his trips to Panama. A 2006 exhibit at Pace/Magill Gallery was titled Mariposas Nocturnas: Edith in Panama. That exhibit was a blending of Gowin's interest in family portraiture with his explorations of nature and biodiversity. The recent work displayed at List Gallery is a fantastic mix of scientific documentation and artistic beauty. I spoke with Emmet Gowin a year ago after a lecture given at Project Basho in Philadelphia and he described his work on the moth indexes with a bright twinkle in his eye. He is clearly energized by this work, and has plans to publish them in a book designed for children. I want to be the first kid on my block to have that book.

Mariposas Nocturnas, Index #16 (2007)

Emmet Gowin @ List Gallery

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