Emmet Gowin, American, born 1941; Nancy, Danville, Virginia, 1969; gelatin silver print; image: 5 1/4 x 6 1/4 inches; Collection of Sam and Betsy Fentress © Emmet Gowin; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York (click for larger version)
December 18, 2013"The Weight of Things," 70 elegant and powerful prints by two different artists, is currently on display in adjacent galleries at the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM). The show documents the explosive force of roughly a hundred year span in the history of American photography and the careers of two brilliant photographers.
Paul Strand, born in 1890, began making photographs in 1918 and continued until his death in 1976. Emmet Gowin, born in 1941, awakened to photography in 1957 and, after retiring in 2009 from Princeton University and a 36-year teaching career, continues to expand his influence into 21st century photography.
This exhibition begins with three of Strand's early iconic photographs, known worldwide. A vitrine contains "Wall Street" (1915), his bold photographic capture of movement. Above it is the famous image, "Blind Woman" (1916), (somewhat) reflecting Strand's interest in subjects unaware of being photographed – and also, "Porch Railings" (1915), his experiment with abstraction in the style of contemporary Braque and Picasso paintings. Many of these early photographs were printed on platinum paper, giving gorgeous luminosity to the prints.
Paul Strand; Village, Gaspé, 1936; Saint Louis Art Museum 73:1978; © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive. (click for larger version)
Strand captures the sublime and dramatic in everyday life, making a distinction between the simplicity of the subject and power of the photograph. Several photographs are from his extensive travels to Egypt, Morocco, Italy and France, among other places – and especially Mexico. In "Ranchos de Taos Church" (New Mexico, 1931), the photograph that gave title to this exhibition, the artist's presentation gives weight to the true meaning of the subject. His innate respect permeates Strand's approach to everything, manifesting itself in later years with his growing interest in nature.
Though influenced by Strand – and photographers Eugene Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Robert Frank and especially Harry Callahan – Gowin found his own expression through his passion for the everyday and, particularly, in his relatedness to his subjects. Under the deep influence of Callahan at Rhode Island School of Design, Gowin changed from a small hand-held camera to a large format camera on a tripod, allowing greater detail and slowing the photographer's process, to better relate to his subject.
Emmet Gowin; Edith, Chincoteague, Virginia, 1967; Saint
Louis Art Museum 3:1978;
© Emmet Gowin; courtesy Pace/
New York (click for larger version)
His wife Edith and extended family are frequent subjects, yet treated in ways wholly new to photography. His photo, "Rennie Booher," (1972) of his deceased mother-in-law's body in the casket, is a dramatic and reverent homage to a beloved figure in his life.
Gowin's goal was to communicate an intensity of feeling, with pictures so potent that there is no need to say anything about them. "The photograph gives physical embodiment to our experience," he says.
For Gowin, as with many great photographers, the captured moment is a visual climax, not a narrative climax.
Gowin's vantage points employ foreshortening, aerial landscapes and images not immediately recognizable – such as his photo of a nuclear reservation alongside the Columbia River. The photograph carries no judgement, but simply presents strong lines and shapes of the landscape. An extraordinary close-up, "Edith, Chincoteague Island, Virginia" (1967), places the camera just behind the subject, as she overlooks a watery background.
The photographer's recent works on display are images of moths, composited with silhouettes of Edith, capturing an ethereal mystery of a "present moment," in its most delicate and transitory nature.
This comprehensive, brilliantly thought-out and installed two-gallery experience is curated by Eric Lutz, SLAM associate curator of prints, drawings and photographs – who drew most of the Strand prints from the museum's rich archives. Local collectors Sam and Betty Fentress lent many Gowin photographs to the exhibit.
Such sensitive exploration of relatedness and wonder makes this exhibit an especially timely and appreciated offering for family and friends during the holidays – and invites all to slow down ... and enjoy!
The Weight of Things: Photographs by Paul Strand and Emmet Gowin will be on display through Feb. 16 at the Saint Louis Art Museum in Forest Park. For more information, visit www.slam.org.