Spotlight: Modern Photographer Emmet Gowin

When many people think of modern art, images of abstract paintings and impressive landscapes come to mind. However, art is not limited to merely what is painted on a canvas, but also what can be captured in a moment. Photography allows talented individuals can immortalize an entire sensation, with a simple click of a button.

Photographer Emmet Gowin was born in Danville, Virginia, where he first showed an interest in art at the age of twelve. When he turned sixteen, he saw a photograph taken by Ansel Adams of a tree that had been burnt, but had a young bud growing in the center of its stump. This inspired him to begin experimenting with photography, and he began taking early pictures of natural scenes in woods and marshes near his home.

EMMET GOWIN Edith, Chinoteague, Virginia, 1967
Edith, Chinoteague, Virginia, 1967

He began to take more dynamic pictures as he completed his education, and met his future wife, whose large and engaging family began to inspire him to work with human subjects in addition to landscapes and natural scenery. Throughout his career, he has been featured in a large number of museums and exhibitions, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Tokyo Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art.

Gowin’s style of art draws heavily from other photographers that captured powerful family moments and American scenes of life. He has acknowledged the works of Eugene Atget, Bill Brandt, Robert Frank, Alfred Stieglitz, Walker Evens, and especially his close friend and mentor Harry Callahan as inspirations that helped him define his work. His photographs have inspired critical acclaim, and his style has been defined as a sort of “background gothic” where the subjects of his photographs feel both posed and surprisingly intimate all at the same time.

Even now, his artwork remains relevant and inspirational to both budding and experienced photographers. Emmet Gowin’s later art, in particular, inspired a large number of students and environmentalists to bring to public attention the negative effect that human expansion has on the natural landscape. Gowin’s stark photographs of abandoned strip mining sites, vast and eerily empty nuclear testing fields, tremendously large scale, forced agricultural fields and other manmade scars on the landscape helped changed the way that many people viewed modern economics and expansion. His jarring representations of humanity, ranging from the personal and intimate, with his photographs of his wife and their family, to the world changing, with his photographs of entire landscapes from aerial views, have inspired entire generations of photographers to observe the world around them with a more perceptive eye.

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