Emmet Gowin is known for his compelling photographs of landscapes altered by nuclear testing, as well as his recent details of nature at its smallest scales. To mark his retirement from Princeton, the exhibition “Emmet Gowin: A Collective Portrait,” featuring his own work and that of students from the past thirty-six years, opens at the university’s art museum on October 24.
IN 1997, I PHOTOGRAPHED the Nevada test site from the air. I was elated to be able to see it, because of the power it had over our lives. I had been trying to get permission for at least eight years, since the sudden end of the cold war. Some people from Princeton University—Bill Bradley, John McPhee, even the president of the university at the time, Harold Shapiro—were a great help, although when I finally did get permission, I couldn’t help but think it was probably a mistake on the part of the Department of Energy. I asked an employee from the department: “Am I the first individual to photograph the test site?” And his reply seemed so enlightened: “You’re not an individual, you’re a university.” I now think that if Princeton had not been part of the equation, my series would never have happened.
I experienced a sequence of feelings––from elation to sadness––while visiting these sites. I remember enduring one of the darkest moods of my life. At one point, a friend said to me, “Why don’t you come with us to Ecuador?” That, strangely, turned out to be a breakthrough and a way back to a moment in my own history. In 1976, I had made a photograph of insects sprinkled lightly on a decayed nineteenth-century book of history and rhetoric. It was clear that much of the damage to that book had been done by insects—suggesting, I suppose, their almost-eternal status. Even then I felt a connection between the importance and the staying power of insects and the small scale of our individual lives.
That first trip to the tropics led to discoveries I would never have imagined. I learned to use a certain mercury-vapor lamp that scientists use. When you look at this light, it seems to remain at a constant brightness, but in fact it flashes sixty times a second. The swollen points you see in the moths’ flight paths are wing strokes. This bit of line, all these intricate curlicues and spirals, is about one-tenth of a second—whoop! When photographed, it reveals this beautiful tracery of flight.
With rare exceptions, all the insects were alive when I photographed them; they could have easily flown away. They were in a natural, resting posture. At first, I only photographed moths where they landed. I liked the feeling that I was being visited. Most of them could have left, but there was one that had been paralyzed, entangled in a spiderweb. Gradually, I learned that I could gently urge the insects to move without really disturbing them. That opened up possibilities.
At the time, I had five index sheets; now I have twenty-seven, and I’d like to make one hundred. Each sheet represents a real time and a real place, a moment that was particular and miraculous. One insect was trapped in water and was spinning on its own world axis. It was a totality encapsulated in that moment—life, death, everything.