There are at least three exhibitions in Hidden Likeness: Photographer Emmet Gowin at the Morgan currently at the Morgan Library & Museum (May 22–September 20, 2015). The first and largest one consists of Gowin’s photographs and objects, and the various drawings, books, illuminated pages, anonymous snapshots and other items he has selected from the museum’s permanent collection to pair with them.
Within these pairings one can discern a second exhibition, which is a tight survey of Gowin’s work organized by Joel Smith, the Morgan’s curator of photography, from its beginnings in 1965 to a photograph dated 2012, tracing the artist’s growth from the early photographs of his wife Edith, her extended family, and their son, Elijah, to views of “working landscapes,” aerial views of devastated terrain (nuclear test sites) and, most recently, rain forests, where he often photographs at night.
The third exhibition consists of Gowin’s choices for the pairings, which include two drawings by William Blake; a drawing by Domenico Campagnola, “Apocalyptic Scene with Fallen Buildings” (ca 1550); a watercolor and gouache by Samuel Palmer, a charcoal drawing by Odilon Redon; along with ancient seals, manuscripts, printed books and photographs.
Together, these exhibitions, which were sensitively reviewed by Roberta Smith in the New York Times (June 4, 2015), form a dense collage of overlapping thoughts and conversations. For those who were dazzled by this exhibition, as I was, I highly recommend buying the trim exhibition catalogue, Hidden Likeness: Emmet Gowin at The Morgan (2015), which contains a discussion between Smith and Gowin that is a must-read for anyone interested in art, creativity, and photography.
While the three exhibitions borne out of Gowin’s pairings are readily apparent, there are other, smaller narratives within this dense gathering that should be singled out. On a simple level, Gowin’s photographs can be separated into two categories: those photographs that register what he finds in the landscape, whether it is in Petra, Jordan or Danville, Virginia, where he was born and where he still spends time; and those that Roberta Smith characterizes as “an experiment.”
These two sides of Gowin reminded me of the argument between Ansel Adams and William Mortensen, whom Adams dubbed “the Anti-Christ” for his staged photographs. In my Hyperallergic review (October 21, 2012) of Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (October 11, 2012 – January 27, 2013), I wrote:
In the ensuing argument between Mortensen and the purists, straight photography won out. In his seminal study, The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1937), Beaumont Newhall left Mortensen out altogether.
It is worth noting that work by Frederick Sommer, who was Gowin’s mentor, was featured prominently in this exhibition.
Are Gowin’s manipulated works “experiments,” as Smith and others have dubbed them, or are they simply (and not so simply) another side of his investigation of photography? The term “experiment” reminds me of the opening of James Agee’s review of the great filmmaker, Jean Vigo: “If you regard all experiment as an affectation…” While Smith isn’t dismissive of Gowin’s so-called experimental works, far from it, I find the term itself problematic. It suggests that the work is a test undertaken in a laboratory in order to prove a hypothesis, and because of these conditions it is removed from life. Personally speaking, I am sick of the term “experiment” and its antitheses, “purist” and “purity,” and all that they imply.
One overall point I want to make is that the largest photograph in this exhibition is around 13 x 20 inches, and many are less than 10 x 10 inches. Still, despite such a scaled-down format, Gowin is able to palpably register the landscape’s changing surface. He wants to convey both the texture and sight of his subjects, the blemishes and stains made by mankind and time. Another point I want to stress is that, in the photographs involving some form of manipulation, Gowin does not repeat himself. He does not turn what he does into either a style or a product.
In “Edith in Panama, Blakean Conversation” (2007), we see a sheet behind which a nude woman, mostly in shadow, straddles a chair. Her face is covered by the silhouette of a bust, which is looking down at two upside-down, cut-out figures she is holding in one hand.
Who are we and whom do we talk to when we are alone? Who do we summon to our sides when solitariness overtakes us? Who hears us, even when we don’t cry out? This is what Gowin, who could be speaking of his own work, said about Blake: “Blake’s personal vision was what he had to create because the world’s vision didn’t suit him.” In Gowin’s work, as in Blake’s, urgency and necessity converge.
In his discussion of “Edith in Panama, Flight Inside (2003), Gowin tells Smith that he “traced a silhouette from a photograph of Edith […] that he had taken with him “to “Panama.” While there he used a certain bulb to photograph an insect’s flight in front of “rapid flashing [which] produces a stroboscopic effect. It’s something the eye an barely see for itself, but film has no problem recording it.”
In “Edith, (Rain Droplets in a Web)” (2004), which stirred up unexpected associations and memories, Gowin has re-photographed a portrait of Edith with her eyes closed, which he placed behind a spider web laden with raindrops. We see the droplets, but not the web, partially obscuring Edith’s face, the slight tilt of her head echoing the attentive inclination of the Madonna in Byzantine and Renaissance paintings. The interventions of the raindrops brought to mind a day in the mid-80s, in Florence, Italy, where the Italian painter Roberto Barni took me to see a recently uncovered fresco, in which the eyes of the saints had been gouged out before the fresco was covered over. They were not supposed to see what was going to happen to them, he explained. The water droplets also reminded me of other paintings with surfaces blistered by time, water or fire. Another unexpected association was of the blurred photographs of Miroslav Tichý, which often preserve a scarred, deteriorating thing. Beauty and terror melded together, the sheer sensuality of the raindrops in counterpoint to the feeling that the portrait is of someone who has gone blind.
In all of Gowin’s photographs I had the feeling that he was registering the effects of time, both natural and manmade, on the world around him. In doing so, he resisted the crystalline timelessness we associate with certain iconic photographers and photographs (Ansel Adams, for example) – that moment when time is made to stand still so we might contemplate infinity as a thing of sublime beauty – in favor of time as an inescapable process which involves aging, scarring, decay and growth.
Born into a religiously fundamentalist family, and the son of a minister, I don’t think it is farfetched to speculate that Gowin’s preoccupations continue to be spiritual, despite his loss of faith. He is concerned with the materiality of being, as it manifests itself in individuals, families, friendships, and communities. Within these preoccupations, one also sees Gowin honing in on evidence of continuity, regeneration and the apocalyptic. He is a visionary photographer, brimming with intimations of mortality and yearning while poised, peacefully and precariously, on the cusp of infinity – a compelling and often disturbing contradiction.
Hidden Likeness: Photographer Emmet Gowin at the Morgan continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through September 20.