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Vol. LXIII, No. 43
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
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“A Guided Tour of a Life in Photography” Kicks Off Celebration of Emmet Gowin

Dilshanie Perera

Princeton University Professor and photographer Emmet Gowin took audience members on “a meander” through his artistic life and legacy last Saturday in a completely packed McCosh 10 auditorium on campus.

The talk preceded the opening of “Emmet Gowin: A Collective Portrait,” a new exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum that includes photographs by Mr. Gowin, his mentors, and twenty of his students. The show runs through February 21, 2010.

Mr. Gowin, who retires at the end of 2009 after having taught at Princeton for 36 years, likened the lecture to drawing “a line from my youth to the present,” with stories intermingling with images from his oeuvre projected onto the screen behind him.

Waiting in a dentist’s office in 1957, Mr. Gowin recalled the immediate emotional reaction he felt looking at a magazine photograph. He later eagerly thumbed through the exhibition copy of “Family of Man,” a 1955 photography show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and was pleased to find that he could discern the photographic styles that moved him the most.

At the time, the young Mr. Gowin wondered, “Why should I be afraid of any authority? I know exactly how I feel.” He remarked that “the feeling set into motion by the image has already been inhabited by the viewer.”

Mr. Gowin studied with the photographer Harry Callahan, who he said imparted the “model of intimacy I was to carry into my work.”

Shortly after Mr. Gowin started graduate school in 1965, he received induction papers to go to Vietnam and had to return home to appeal the decision. A professor lent him some film holders in case he wanted to take photographs while he was away. “You can be in a terrible mood, and make a great picture,” and vice versa, he said.

Of the process, Mr. Gowin emphasized that “there is something deeper than your intention.”

“I love the ubiquity, strangeness, and capacity of the picture to outlive us, and to go places we’ll never go,” he said.

Early in his career, Mr. Gowin realized that the farthest one can travel is to “come back to where you already are.” Photographing his wife Edith, their sons Elijah and Isaac, and other family members formed the core of his work. “If I hadn’t married Edith, you probably would not have heard of me,” he said, adding that her collaboration was a tremendous gift.

“What always interests me is the deep story behind [the photograph],” Mr. Gowin said.

In the 1970s, Mr. Gowin also began creating aerial landscape photographs. He showed images of fields containing old missile silos, and told stories about flying over missile test sites. “I don’t think there is any such thing as a picture that isn’t political in some way,” he said, adding “in everything that is worthwhile, there is a stance.”

“We need a sense of how precious this world is,” he observed.

Mr. Gowin’s latest project involves color photographic studies of moths from Central and South America.

Thanking his mentors and students, Mr. Gowin noted that the lecture was really for the young adults in the room.

“There are things in your life that you will see; there are stories in your life that you will hear. And if you don’t make the picture, if you don’t write it down, it won’t get seen; it won’t get told,” he said to thunderous applause.

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