Meeting Emmet Gowin in 1986


When I was a kid growing up in St. Louis, Missouri. I was always interested in photography. As a result, I took some classes at the local community college, as they had a darkroom there, and I could develop and print my own work. I made friends with many of the teachers and consequentially was invited along to a lecture by Emmet Gowin. Preceding the lecture I had been shown his books of photographs, so I was familiar with his work. Up until that point he had made a name for himself in the art world with photographs he had taken of his family and most prominently of his wife Edith.

I was fascinated by these photos, and I loved looking at them. His archetypal images of his family members and their dynamics were palpable, powerful, and poignant. Yet, Mr. Gowin managed to present these images with an ethereal quality and a softness which made you think you could actually feel the weight and hear the quietness of each moment.

Needless to say, I was excited to meet and listen to what Mr. Gowin had to say. The lecture hall was big and many people had come to see him talk. He started things off with showing his new work. (The work he had published with his family was done in the 1970’s.) I remember him talking about the aerial photographs briefly and showing us some of the images. To be honest, I was slightly disappointed. I had come to see more of his portrait work, and I did not quite like how disconnected I felt looking at the aerials. The images felt technical and dry to me.

But then something happened.

Mr. Gowin stopped talking about the work and told a random, very long, and involved story. The story he told I cannot recall in detail or even storyline. It bordered on bizarre. The story involved something about a Native American Indian, who with a coyote, a crow, and some drums, had flown through time and space and had all these adventures. The story he told was very elaborate and had many details about color and sound.

Honestly, I do not remember the story, but what I do recall is being blown away. I had never been lost in a moment like that before. Suddenly, I was looking at his aerial photographs, and the magic of the lines and the shapes were also an elaborate tale of mystery and meaning. Emmet Gowin had awaken in me his vision of abstract mysticism. And it felt right.


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