Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On Tuesday, renowned photographer Emmet Gowin came to campus as this year’s Donald J. Gordon Visiting Artist. He gave a lecture titled “A Life in Photography” in LPAC Cinema, followed by an evening reception for his exhibit in the List Gallery. Gowin is well-known for his intimate portraits, especially those of his wife Edith, as well as for his landscape work and aerial photographs. He studied with Harry Callahan at the Rhode Island School of Design during the 1960s, and in 2010 he retired from teaching after thirty-six years as a photography professor at Princeton University.
During the lecture, Gowin described his journey as an artist through a series of stories, beginning with an experience he had when he was thirteen. He saw a photograph of a burnt tree stump in a magazine and interpreted it as a depiction of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. From that moment on, he said, he could not stop seeing photographs as symbols. Despite criticisms from friends and classmates at Richmond Professional Institute (where he studied graphic design), Gowin viewed photography as a serious artform and decided to pursue it. He went on to become one of America’s best-loved photographers. His numerous accolades include a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and a Pew Fellowship in the Arts.
“Life looks like a series of accidents,” he said. “But from backward-looking, it becomes a story with chapters… The peace we’re able to maintain from those accidents is what determines our lives.”
A large portion of the lecture was devoted to Gowin’s friends and influences, including Harry Callahan, Frederick Sommer, Cranston Ritchie, Leonardo da Vinci, and Diane Arbus. He also cited his childhood as a source of creative inspiration, noting his father’s career as a Methodist minister, and referencing the Gospel of Matthew in his recent work with insects: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.”
“Usually, in a retrospective like this, the lines of influence — going in either direction — are significantly less explicit,” says Alex Younger ’12, a Studio Art major specializing in photography. “And since he really filled in one side of that equation for us, it was much easier to see the connections in the other direction. Especially in his older work, the family work, it’s easy to see how that has affected younger well-known artists.”
Throughout the lecture, Gowin continually referenced the role fate has played in his life and his career.
“That sense of chance constantly interfering with our plans and hopes,” he said, is key to his artwork. He referenced one of his most well-known photographs, “Nancy,” as a transcendental moment that came by accident. The little girl in the photograph found the eggs on her own, and she posed herself that way — overriding his own plans for the photo shoot. Gowin quoted Diane Arbus’s assertion that, “I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.”
“I think that the idea of a happy accident is something that artists have to deal with, and either embrace or wholly reject,” said Thomas Soares ’12, in a small group discussion during the List Gallery reception. “More often than not, they happen. And this show proves that they can be pretty amazing.”
The List Gallery exhibition, a survey of over sixty works from the past fifty years, is open to the public through April 1st. It includes both landscapes and portraiture. For those interested in learning more about Gowin’s work, there is information available in List and a number of books available for check-out in McCabe Library.
“This exhibition is unique at Swarthmore,” said Christie DeNizio ’11, an employee at the gallery who helped install the show. “Emmet is so renowned. It’s an honor to have what basically equates to a retrospective in the List.”