Emmet Gowin at Photo Alliance

Photo Alliance is a fantastic local non-profit, offering photography workshops, professional resources, and an incredible lecture series for the past 10 years. (Happy Birthday Photo Alliance!)

This past Friday they hosted the inimitable Emmet Gowin, for a lecture on his lifelong involvement with photography. Having seen him speak on other occasions, I can say that the overarching message he conveys is one of inclusiveness, and great regard for the medium. As an artist, Gowin appreciates the importance of very story. Throughout the lecture he repeatedly encouraged all of the photographers present to believe fully in their own vision, and their own work.

Gowin grew up in Danville, Virgina, the site of much of his photography explorations. and attended Rhode Island school of Design for graduate school. At RISD, Gowin studied with photographers Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. He first gained notoriety through photographing his family and hometown.


Most, or all, of Gowin’s images were done exclusively with a large format camera. He also experimented with 4×5 lenses mounted on an 8×10 camera, resulting in circular images surrounded by darkened vignettes.

He shared a number of stories behind the images of his wife, Edith, and various nieces and family members. Rather than the unmovable vision of the Photographer, his images grew out of an interchange between himself and his subjects. In many ways, Gowin credited his images to the willingness of his participants, and the accident of their collaborations. In this way, he spoke to using photography as a process to confront what we don’t understand.


In his own words, “Looking back on the key moments in your life, you realize that those accidents were what gave your life shape, what gave your life meaning. Things just happen.”

Every time I’ve seen him speak, it’s been an incredible avowal of the weight and potential of photography. In the same vein as the shared involvement between the people he photographs and himself, Gowin brought in this quote,

        “I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard

        over the solitude of the other.” Rainer Maria Rilke


After the Mt. St. Helens eruption in 1980, Gowin began exploring aerial photography. The content of these includes views of missile silos and test sites, paper mills and farms and communicate, with incredible detail, the textures and forms of the land.

He shared a story about one plane light in search of missile silos. The pilot, in this case, worked weekends flying for the military, and had shied away from Gowin’s subject matter. After some convincing, the set off. As they passed over a wheat field, Gowin requested they recircle the field to get a few more images. As he related the memory, the pilot declined, and “with the energy of a newly born convert,” continued on in search of test sites.

By the mathematics of their course, they flew over the exact same field on their return trip. The surface of the field in Gowin’s resulting image had an incredibly beautiful cracked pattern. Upon further exploration, he discovered that the limestone earth underneath contained more water than its neighboring spaces. So as the wheat in this particular field grew, along the network of cracks, it grew just a little bit taller. Giving the entire field the uncommon pattern of the ground beneath it.

His pilot responded, “If you weren’t here, I wouldn’t have seen that.”

In the end, this was the sentiment behind Gowin’s message: If you don’t seek out, explore, and capture the stories that are so unique to you and your work, there are so many stories that will never be told, and images that won’t be seen.

Make sure to catch the next Photo Alliance lecture with Ken Light.

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