Interview with Emmet Gowin

I’m pretty excited. I contacted Emmet Gowin and he agreed to do a telephone interview regarding my research paper comparing his book  Photographs with Robert Frank’s The Americans.  If you aren’t familiar with Gowin he is one of the preeminent  photographers in the world. Here is a link to a collection of his photographs from Photographs and from his aerial photographs.

Photographs is a  beautiful, funny, solemn, and intimate anthology of black and white photographs that center around Gowin’s wife, Edith and his extended family in Danville, Va.

Here is an excerpt of the interview:

Calvin: Well, can we, do you mind if I record our conversation?

Gowin: No, that would be alright.

Cavin: Thank you very much. Well. What I am doing, Mr. Gowin, is a research paper and its comparing your photographs and the book Photographs to Robert Frank’s The Americans. And what I would like to do eventually besides this one research paper is turn it into an article for publication. If, if it turns out..

Gowin: I… I forget where you are.

Calvin: I’m in Atlanta at Georgia State University.

Gowin: Okay…okay.

Calvin: At the school of photography there.

Gowin: Right, right I can picture that. That’s where John McWilliams was for years.

Calvin: That is, that’s correct. John McWilliams…

Gowin: Ok.

Calvin: Umm…and so the whole point, or one of the major cruxes of my paper is the idea of family. Uh, many years ago when I first saw your book Photographs it just drew me in on this sort of just this really sense of wonder and familiar and warmth and solemnity etc. with that family.

Gowin: Right, where are you from?

Calvin: I’m from Georgia.

Gowin: Uh huh. Uh huh.

Calvin: My father was in the military so we traveled a lot. But I wound up back here in Georgia.

Gowin: Yes, yes.

Calvin: So, I live here in Atlanta. Been here for a bit.

Gowin:  Right, right.

Calvin: Uh so what I was wondering, and I noticed too, I asked in my email about your influences and when I was reading again the introduction to your photographs you listed some of your influences so maybe I could just start off by asking you would those include like Bill Brandt, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, of course, and  Alfed Stieglitz, and I was wondering if you revised or updated that list?

Gowin: Umm…I probably haven’t thought about making a list so much since then. You know, that was 1976 that that was published.

Calvin: Right.

Gowin: Umm… and that was all too really fresh in my mind. I think the first few years of your experience hang on a few of almost accidental experiences but in those you find out about yourself that you needed to know and I sometimes remember the experience of being shown the family of man the first time. Probably 1961 in my first year of art school and during a break in the drawing class somebody brought it over, set it down, and said “you should look at this. You think you like photography-you should know about this book.”  And I looked at it pretty quickly because a break didn’t last very long. As I was doing it, I noticed deep in the book a picture with a ceiling very equal to an image on one of the first pages and for the first time I wondered “who made that other picture?” It’s so closely aligned emotionally with this picture so maybe the first moment of silence I  turned back, hunted down that picture, and the name under the picture was the same as the name of the picture in the rear of the book. And I just took that as an affirmation that I had gotten it right, that I had sensed something not stylistically but on a spiritual/ emotional level. Umm.. that was resident in the picture. And my reasoning then I still hold to. My reasoning was that the reason the picture had this feeling was inhabited by this feeling. It was in then already. They found both pictures because in both images were corresponding to something they were inhabited by it and they also needed to find it. And uh its relevant to what you’re asking because the name under the picture was Robert Frank.

Calvin: Really?

Gowin: I don’t know that I remembered that name in an unbroken way but it was clear enough for me to realize who it was and then gradually or so I became much clearer  at who Robert Frank was.  The Americans was published in ’59 here and that was ’61 it was fresh and new. It was just out. I didn’t own a copy until about 1970 but some of my teachers had copies and I would sit down when I could and looked through it so in a way I had memorized it very early on before I ever actually owned a copy.  Um I was certainly aware of it as a book. Since I was sort of going there from knowing nothing about photography no cultural heroes and nobody to look up to, through the “Family of Man” I came across a handful of names and pretty quickly I bought , ran across The Decisive Moment (Cartier-Bresson) one of Newhall’s books, brief history, and from that became aware of Evans and Eugene Atget.  There are probably other things, too, that I would remember if I gave it much thought, but very soon thereafter the book acquiring process, I came across Atget, which is “Vision of Paris” I started to build a library. I had an uh oh a library of maybe a dozen or more photo books the year that Edith and I married she bought me a copy of the Evans’ book that Christmas.  Those things fell in place and you know I never forgot what I saw.  That speaks to influence.

The Prospectus

Project Proposal
Photo History
Calvin Burgamy
October 5, 2009

Comparing Robert Frank and Emmet Gowin:
The Gravitas of the Negative

In my research paper I will be comparing Robert Frank and his book The Americans to Emmet Gowin and his book Photographs.
Robert Frank was an outsider looking in.  Born in Switzerland and naturalized in the United States Frank traveled the United States looking for the soul of a country. His  book  The Americans is generally categorized as pessimistic and downbeat  although there are photographs of beauty and faith.  He searched for the real America and in doing so turned over a few rocks and saw the dark side of 1950’s America.    America was on the fast track and inn many of  the photographs there is the sense of the movement, immediacy, and spontaneity.

Emmet Gowin on the other hand is the quintessential insider. He was born in Danville, Virginia where most of the photographs in Photographs were taken. Most of the photographs were of his wife, Edith and her immediate family. The photographs were very personal and conveyed a sense of familiarity,  closeness, and sensuality.

There is  a clear difference in style, personality, and closeness to the subject between Frank and Gowin.  I will discuss these sharp differences as well as a few similarities.  A focal point of the paper will be family: Franks view of the American family and Gowin’s view of his wife and  family.

Robert Frank, the paper begins, thought 1a.

My one page prospectus detailing my Frank/Gowin project is due October 6, 2009.  The research paper journey begins!

Robert Frank is alive and living in New York City! Here is an up to date  review of his classic book, The Americans

Elevator, Miami Beach, 1955
Elevator, Miami Beach, 1955

His images have been called sad, pessimistic and burdened.  You can see that the elevator girl doesn’t appear  happy. She looks bored, distracted, disconnected. She works in an elevator and you can’t help but wonder at the sheer monotony of it. Moving up and down in the same vertical shaft all day. In the photograph, people pass by in a blur. It is sad and pessimistic.  I’m sure that at the right time and the right place she could have forced a smileor having seen a friend  come alive for a moment. But the truth is this is but one of 83 photographs of a collection. A series of thoughts that add up to a larger thought. All the photographs ( I will assiduously avoid the term photos or pics or pictures) are not sad. In fact some are happy and if not happy, not sad either. But the thoughts add up and the sum is one of the aspects I will  be exploring.