Visual Arts

Emmet Gowin exhibit at the Nelson is a (real) picture of life

Emmet Gowin’s early work focused on his wife, Edith, their family and their lives in Virginia. “Edith, Danville, Virginia,” was taken in 1971.
Emmet Gowin’s early work focused on his wife, Edith, their family and their lives in Virginia. “Edith, Danville, Virginia,” was taken in 1971. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art photos

With smartphones, photography is nearly ubiquitous. Today we constantly document and share the minutia of our daily lives.

An exhibit by Emmet Gowin at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art explores a time when that idea was new.

The museum has one of the world’s biggest collections of Gowin’s works, but the exhibit is relatively small, filling just three walls.

The prints themselves are small, too. That’s entirely fitting. Gowin, particularly in his early work, was concerned with the deeply personal and that concern is perhaps his most singular contribution to the history of photography as art.

Born in Virginia in 1941, Gowin earned a Bachelor of Arts in graphic design from what is now Virginia Commonwealth University and a Master of Fine Arts in photography from Rhode Island School of Design. He found his most famous subject matter, however, far from academia. Gowin’s first major body of work focused on his wife, Edith, their family, and daily life around their rural Virginia home. That humble subject matter, at the time, was part of a visual revolution.

Just as Gowin was beginning his career in the early 1960s, photography was being radically transformed. In 1963 Kodak introduced the Instamatic. Over the next 10 years, the company would sell an astounding 75 million of the mass-market, inexpensive, point-and-shoot cameras. Photography was suddenly changed from art form accessible to a relatively wealthy few into a hobby affordable for almost all.

Millions of people began taking intimate, unstaged portraits of daily life, giving birth to an entirely new genre — the snapshot.

Gowin absorbed this raw, folksy new aesthetic. He became perhaps the first great fine-art photographer to blend the emotional immediacy of the snapshot with the intellectual rigor of fine art. He explores the real, raw, sometimes surreal experience of simple Americans at home, but does so with a Raphaelite classicist eye. It’s fraught work, but profoundly unselfconscious and unglamorous. Rather than being shouted at, we are whispered to — in softly rendered black and white.

By the 1980s, Gowin’s interest was shifting. More and more he shot landscapes, eventually evolving to focus on aerial photography. It’s a dramatic change from his earlier, intensely personal work. Gowin literally rises above daily human life to explore how those lives affect the land.

It’s a curious intersection of pure art and photojournalism; between objects of sheer aesthetic appreciation and a photojournalist’s commentary on how humans use the Earth.

There is Zen-like loneliness to these later images. They are stark, haunting and sometimes softly devastating. Like an anti-Ansel Adams, Gowin refuses sentimental explorations of natural wonder.

His landscapes, from irrigated fields to nuclear test sites, are marked by human hands. In many ways, they are images of a wounded land. Some of those wounds, like off-road tire tracks in a Utah desert, are merely disturbing. Some are terrifying — like the massive craters created by underground nuclear testing at the Yucca Flat site in Nevada.

It bears noting that most of the work is not digital. In a Snapchat world, where photographs are ephemera, this exhibit presents the photograph as object — a physical thing shot on film, developed in a darkroom and imprinted on gelatin silver sheets. This act, unlike digital photography, requires a technical expertise that increasingly feels like a lost art.

The show concludes with look back, then forward. We do get an example of Gowin’s recent dabbling with digital and color — an astonishingly vivid collection of tropical moths.

But we also get one more shot of Edith, now a wrinkled old woman. Gowin retired from teaching at Princeton University in 2009 and lives in Pennsylvania with his wife. Capping her decades-long relationship with the lens, the image encapsulates Gowin’s best work. It is a simple, informal, and deeply intimate portrait that’s been elevated through technique and sheer talent to art with universal appeal.

Hampton Stevens writes about entertainment and the arts for regional and national publications. He lives in Kansas City. Follow him on Twitter @HamptonStevens.

On exhibit

“Emmet Gowin: Photographs” continues through Nov. 8 in Gallery L11 of the Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Admission is free.