New York

Emmet Gowin

Light Gallery

In none but two of Emmet Gowin’s photographs of his wife, Edith, which make up a substantial part of his work, does the photographer allow her to smile, converse, laugh, grimace, weep or otherwise express any human emotion but unbudgeable seriousness. She is not always patient with this, and more than once annoyance and disdain creep into her hard composure. Nor would Gowin have it seem that she ever really gets out of her nightgown except to pose nude for him. The other people in Gowin’s pictures, mostly relatives, are just about as sober, except for a few whom he permits the beginning of an easygoing camera grin. Moreover, in very few of Gowin’s landscapes is there ever much sunlight, though there are more than enough gray skies, leafless trees and barren farm buildings.

Gowin practices a kind of photographic mannerism which extends from the work of a number of photographers—Wynn Bullock, Harry Callahan, Frederick Sommer perhaps among them. His concept—the idea of an extended portrait of his family and its locale—derives, I suppose, from Stieglitz and from family albums (though it also has its precedents in painting.) But his work’s salience is not its variety, intimacy or rich characterization, qualities one might expect to inhere in such a project but which are negligible in Gowin. Instead there is a redundant fascination with Edith’s visage and a pervasive lugubriousness that masquerades as her soulfulness. In one of many pictures in which she bares her breasts she stares defiantly at the camera as if to ask whether we fully understand how important they are. It is the kind of expression one might expect from a victim revealing a war wound. One is almost prompted to giggle absurdly at this, since there is, really, very little to understand.

At times Gowin turns utterly morbid, as in one picture where an obese worker glares at the camera, knife in hand, as he pauses from butchering a hog. This grotesquerie being not enough, Gowin exaggerates it by allowing his wide-angle lens to impose all the distortion it can muster. When the lens elasticizes Edith in the same way, she nevertheless fails to appear an odalisque. Gowin has lately taken to using a lens whose image is too small for his camera, so that a circular vignette appears around each picture and one views his subjects as if through a dark tunnel. I think that each of these camera devices is used, as is Edith’s intent and solemn countenance, to try to infuse the pictures with a surrogate emotionality since there is a conspicuous lack of drama, diversity or extraordinary detail in them. Yet to equate stretched figures, severe gazes, plaintive faces, dilapidated architecture and swatches of darkness with empathy, insight into character, or even the sense of a place and its people being moribund, as I think Gowin does, is to misreckon the difficulty of asserting those qualities with purely visual means. The heightened emotionality that may surround objects that we call expressionism is a demanding and venerable goal in photography as much as in any other medium. But what is being expressed must be tangible and complex as life; in Gowin’s case it is not.

Perhaps I am being too harsh with Gowin. There are occasions when he will admit dissonant details into his pictures so that they edge toward a jarring surrealism, as in one picture of a little girl stretching sleepily on the grass, surrounded by a chaos of brilliant dolls. Again, at times Gowin’s pictures begin to be dramatic, as in a photograph of two young children wrestling in such a position that they appear to be making love. (A pressman at Rapoport Printing once expressed outrage to me about this picture!) These photographs, however, are anomalies in Gowin’s work, which generally adheres to a pattern so strict that it precludes such valuable aspects.

Leo Rubinfien