Full Interview with Emmet Gowin

Calvin: 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.


Calvin:  One of the things I’ve been thinking about in this article about your work and about Frank’s work is that in the front of your book “Photographs” you said “I entered into a family freshly different from my own.”  And I look at Franks work, you know a Swiss, naturalized American and in the interviews I’ve read with him he said how excited he was when he came to the United States and how new it was to him. For him to embark on this new adventure and so I wanted to ask you about that quote, “I entered into a family freshly different from my own.”  What that meant to you and how it seems so natural the photographs you took of the family, it didn’t seem like they were new people other than the sense that you were excited about the images you were doing of the people, if that makes any sense.
Gowin: Well it does make sense and you know I can never be outside the experience and I always assume that the pictures that you print and give a public life to they have to be the clearest ones, the ones most able to take care of themselves. But you don’t really get to say that much in their defense they are rather vulnerable and fragile. So you want them to be the strongest as image and in a sense its funny Arbus says something like this; the more local they are the more universal, the more particular, meaningful of the exact moment in which they were done. It seems that makes the somehow have a more general value and people do have the feeling of understanding or recognizing something even if in your own experience its odd or peculiar. You might have had the experience and think to yourself this is quite, this is a strange thing I just saw and then somebody else is saying without knowing that “Oh I recognize this.” So the odder it is, the more particular, the more of a chance it has at being felt and understood by others. What I meant by  saying that my family is different from my wife’s family is pretty straightforward.  My family all, my mother and father both has advanced degrees, at a time when that was very rare. My father was very much a public person being involved with religion gave him a place to speak from and so his ideas were expressed all the time we knew what he thought. My wife’s family on the other hand were private people, workers, conversely, the irony of that is people who were public figures were actually private people and the private people were more open with themselves and didn’t try to hide their secret lives. So when I say freshly different, that is a strong contrast.
Calvin: That is strong. You also said  in here, well, let me ask you one further question about that. It almost seemed like you were living there. Were you living there with your wife?
Gowin: No, we never did exactly that. The one time we moved back to Danville was after graduate school in the late spring of 1977 and we got our own place then. We lived in a rented apartment on the other side of town and we just drove to her mother’s once every day but for evening or something like that. Be around until dark and then we’d go home. But over those years, from ’67 until about ’74, ’75, we spent our holidays there and we went home for Christmas, Thanksgiving, and that kind of thing, and we often spent 6 weeks there in the summertime. So, you could say we were living there in the summertime, which was because I was teaching from the very beginning, the summer was really the only time my mind was free of other responsibilities.
Calvin: Right. Umm, then can I just go ahead and jump right in and ask if you could compare your photographs to Robert Frank and how would you compare them? In the book “The Americans,” specifically, and your book, Photographs.
Gowin: Umm, well.
Calvin: Or would you even accept that premise?
Gowin: No, no of course I have thought about all of this and just as I told you this story about seeing the picture in the back of the book that matched the one in the front of the book, that realization of the emotional content of the picture was already a part of the viewer. When I made that discovery I realized those picture belonged to me in some way. I had participated in the making of the picture, you can say it this way you have to understand what I mean when I say it this way. The picture went unseen until I saw it and when I saw it, identified it, understood the exact temperature of that picture it was without an audience. And as audience I inherited something about that picture and what I inherited was something about myself. I was the one who decided the feeling in those two pictures was the same. And it’s very empowering it gave me a great sense of self knowledge and feeling of accuracy of observation. It may seem like a really tiny thing but what happens is that throughout your life all of your little chance experiences line up in various ways, and out of that builds a sense of confidence that the perception you’re having can be understood and can be trusted and while it absorbs and observes the large  world it’s also be created inside yourself. So it’s not something that totally outside of you nor is it totally inside of you. It’s where those two things come together.  Frank has been such an inspiration and such  a hero  no more so than Cartier-Bresson but Frank’s photos were located in a landscape that resembled the one I was living in. His pictures could have been made on any of our streets, still. And so what I did was I went around and it would be very hard not to make pictures that not look like Robert Frank. Once you knew what kind of attitude you held  and it was difficult to not see the world the way Frank saw it. That’s the way it is with any profoundly true experience it’s hard to go back. Once the door is open, you can’t close it. And so I think that after about 3 years the summer before we married, ’64, I had made so many pictures that in so many ways connected those two people, Frank and Cartier-Bresson, it was almost impossible for me to look out a car window and not see those things. And I couldn’t keep it off my film, either. It was everywhere you turned. If that is  the wavelength to which your receiver is tuned, that’s what you’re going to find. And I began to be aware that oh I could make these pictures for the rest of my life and in a sense not acquire something which was  a contribution distinct from what had already been done. And that made me understand that I would go through some hard times where I wouldn’t have the obvious clear relationship between what I was seeing and what I knew, out of my history of seeing  pictures of the past.
Calvin: There seemed to be in… in… in… your writing and your photographs in the book Photographs, I don’t know a sort of realization within the context of this book that you were able to, I think you quoted in there, said, “a recognition of the inherent nature of things and to describe a world within your own  domain that you began to focus a little more clearly on letting things happen and accepting the unforeseen.
Gowin: Right, that’s I sort of forget that I said that but its…. it resembles something. I sat with a group of students the other night, it was one of those things I had to do, with two playwrights who were working on a play about global warming and environmental degradation  and things of this kind and they had invited me to be part of a little symposium and I started to talk about my own experience and it came rushing back, an experience I had had one evening waiting for Edith to get dressed up to go out, I don’t remember where we were going or anything. But standing outside I was thinking about wanting to be an artist and wanting to see the world and wanting to go beyond just where I was standing. And I looked down into a little pool of water and I thought you could go  through the pool of water all the way down and  come out the other side and you’d be surprised  where you came out. And then I began to think about the circumnavigation of the world and how strange everything that you would find, as you would circle the  world, how it would strike you as a surprise, and then, this didn’t take 10 seconds to think through. It takes longer to tell than it did to experience. I realized that no matter how strange any of those places you might stop along your route, to anyone else in the world, that you could dump along that travel, would find where you are as strange as you found where they were. And that little, mental, experience planted in me something that was a kind of confidence that I didn’t have to go anywhere. That where I was was already as rare and unusual as leaving and going and coming back. You hear plenty of stories of people who leave and who have to come back home and I probably, the two things I’ve  told you, the difference between the two families, and this little visualization, that being with this family was like going to the opposite side of the world. It just happened to be in the same town.  Its spiritually, intellectually, mentally, emotionally, its like going to the far side of the world but it was right there. And I think that, I say it in various places and it is probably in that text as well that I realized how special those people were. And that they, alone, that if I would go around the world no one would give me access to them they way these people had. You know, I was interested, I was in love with their daughter. They didn’t, you know, that was enough. That was enough. And so it’s like all of the normal signing of papers and swearing of oaths and none of that ever happened. It was just accepted. And I was authentically interested. And that began to offer the answer to the question that I couldn’t have given Robert Frank if I had known him then. I actually met him in ’63.
Calvin: Mhmm, oh really?
Gowin: For just a few minutes… One of my teachers had known him in New York in the ‘50s and called him up and said I’ve got a student I’m sending up, would you see him? And he said sure, send him. And even when I showed him a dozen pictures, as I was doing it I realized he couldn’t help me and I couldn’t help him. In a way he did help, uh… he made just a couple comments about coming to New York and he said “I can see  that’s not what you want to do, then he said well, if  you want to go to school you ought to study with Callahan.” And I didn’t say anything back about that but I had already come to that conclusion on my own. So I felt again, just like finding his picture in the  of the book,  and knowing whose it was, I thought, “he’s telling me something that he understands, but it’s also something that I understand,” It’s twice right.
Calvin: Well there are definitely some parallels between your work and Callahan’s more so than Robert Franks.
Gowin: And, and, and, and if you saw the little book that I made at the end of my undergraduate years, that’s really like a small handmade book with 14 pictures, and that’s really the tribute to Frank.
Calvin:? What is the name of that book? I haven’t seen it.
Gowin: Well, he
Calvin: Or  could one still see it?
Gowin: Well it’s very hard to find.  Its, uh, there were, at the time there were only 100 copies and we think that  about half of them were destroyed, so we think there’s probably less than 50 copies now. Its just a handmade book and its called Concerning America and Alfred Stieglitz.
Calvin: Concerning America and Alfred Stieglitz?
Gowin: And then  that’s the title of the book and I just tacked on “and myself” And I was just saying you, know, this book,
Calvin: And do you think-
Gowin: This book Concerning America and Alfred Stieglitz was done at sort of the height of Stieglitz’s old age. When he had sort of passed his growth but he was an important figure in American art. He was still running An American Place.
Calvin: Do you think there are any copies of, reproductions of Concerning America and Alfred Stieglitz and Myself?
Gowin: You know, there will be.
Calvin: There will be?
Gowin: There will be someday.
Calvin: Yeah, I would love to see that because that kind of relates directly to what I am writing about. I read recently it was either New York Times or New York that wrote about Frank interview because its an anniversary and there’s a lot of talk about Frank right now.
Gowin: Yeah, yeah.
Calvin: And one of the quotes I liked when the interviewer was asking him about his some of his quotes and things he wrote to get his Guggenheim was, “I don’t remember that, I just wrote that to get the grant.”
Gowin: Yeah, and, and he’s just giving sort of a polite answer, too. I think its pretty well known that Walker Evans wrote Robert Frank’s application.
Calvin: And that’s why he’s passing that off.
Gowin: Yeah
Calvin: Then, I see. Well I think I recall now, that you mentioned that Walker did have something to do with it but I didn’t think that he would have written pretty much the whole thing.
Gowin: Well he may have changed something, he may have shown it to Frank, they were on good enough terms that Frank would have trusted him and just say “that would be great if you could do that, just write me a little letter,” and uh I don’t remember it this minute but just a few years ago I actually saw a copy of that letter. For reasons I don’t even remember, went to stopped in at the offices of the Guggenheim foundations  to ask a question and I just happened to be close by and when I walked in there was a case, a glass case, with the type written letter, supposedly Robert Franks letter, to the Guggenheim.
Calvin: Mhmm.
Gowin: Beside it was a letter from Walker Evans supporting the application. And I think that the note in the case said that Evans had also written Frank’s letter. So at some point Frank or Evans, you know, said at some point in public what had really happened there. It’s not important but it’s fascinating.
Calvin: Well let me ask you, Mr. Gowin, one more thing. I don’t want to keep you on your weekend too long here.
Gowin: Well you probably got more stuff than you would care to transcribe.
Calvin : Yeah. (laughs) Well I hope to do a little bit of it electronically. But uh uh it’s still a bit. Um, one thing I tend to notice and think, talking with you today, things I’ve read that you’ve said, and things that I’ve read Robert Frank said, I’m inferring a little bit of a more spiritual quality to your intentions, nature, spirituality, than Robert Frank. Robert Frank in the terms maybe a little more of a realist journalist part of the photographs. Would you care to comment on that comparison? Or disagree?
Gowin: I think it would be to listen to the two of us would be an unavoidable thing to observe. I would just imagine that anybody who lived in Switzerland during the Second World War and saw all that had happened and had not been protected, separated from that war would have had a very physical, materialistic outlook on the world.
Calvin: Mhmm.
Gowin: And I think it’s unavoidable. And I think he saw and lived through lots of contradictions. I was raised by very spiritual, religious minded parents. And as a part of that upbringing that’s a kind of material I read and absorbed as a child. I might have attempted to obscure or hide that when I was young but as I’ve gotten older I see that that is actually a very natural part of my character and then not something to be avoided. So, yeah.
Calvin. Yeah, well I just see it in in just small little things that you said and some of the quotes you were mentioning a thing you did about Frederick Sommer, such as we are at the mercy of what we find. That’s the real discovery. And what your own spirit struggling with is what energizes your work. A real, I find revealing and interesting and uh…
Gowin: Sommer says we work for that part of our vision that is incomplete. That is exactly that mood. And Sommer, especially linguistically, is way more important to me than Frank or Callahan either one because they were not  linguistic people.
Calvin: Mhmm.
Gowin: They were not talkers or story tellers in the general, what little I knew of Frank, he may have been if you knew him closely enough. I just I also probably felt like I understood everything that Frank had done perfectly. There was no need to ask a question.
Calvin: Right. Well, maybe that came out of, too, again, he when he talks about his family he said he left his family there but they were business people. They wanted him to be in business and he did not want to do that. And so he felt he had to get away from that.
Gowin: Well, and in there, that’s, we share that experience exactly. That is exactly where I was. Getting out of the range of my parents. So simply, I didn’t want to disappoint them but I also didn’t want to surrender my life to their intentions and wishes.
Calvin: Mhmm.
Gowin: They, you know, every family has a business they are in and they draw you into it if they could but if that’s not your calling you better put space between you and them.
Calvin: Well then, just let me, this is really that last question.
Gowin: Okay.
Calvin: If you had to pick out one or two of your favorite photographs of The Americans and one or two from Photographs, what would those be?
Gowin: Wow. It’s much harder for me to say something about the favorites of my own.
Calvin: Mhmm.
Gowin: Between  if it were between my own children. And somebody else’s children. Umm… I would hate to shorten the list of

Of the Robert Frank pictures.

One of the things that is so powerful about that book, is that pictures that aren’t probably all that unique or able to stand by themselves fit in like verbs and adverbs like a beautiful paragraph into that book. They are not all stars but they all function to uh… flesh out one of the most penetrating views of the place.
Calvin: Mhmm.
Gowin: Uh, just these are two really obvious choices and I’ll say two,  the child, the black child crawling on the floor, in front of the jukebox,
Calvin: Mhmm.
Gowin: With the tv on in the background is a picture that when I show a Robert Frank to say you know, in a presentation or something, or just one picture to just infer my indebtedness to Frank, my respect for his work, I’ll show that one.
Calvin: Is there one you would show of your own?
Gowin: It would it would be tougher I’d probably if I had to just one thing I would probably show one of the pictures of Edith.
Calvin: Okay. I don’t want to torture you (laughs)
Gowin: Twenty years ago you know I would say, “Oh, this is the one,” you know
Calvin: Mhmm
Gowin: You know if I couldn’t have but just this one, this is the one, and there was a particular picture of her and I would say that. But now I want all 200. I don’t want to give up any of them. But you could just take one of her.
Calvin: Okay
Gowin: Just standing there and looking back into the camera. I mean there are things, there is actually one, and sort of came back to us as a really nice story. There is a picture of her just from the belly up and her hands actually exit the sides of the picture. And she’s standing by a window. I don’t think you can see the window but you can tell and she’s just looking right back at me. And somebody came to report to us this story, who had been at a lecture by Richard Benson. And Benson had worked for Paul Strand as a printer and as a close associate for around 10 years, maybe. Um… and Richard Avedon was in the audience and Benson was describing Paul Strand versus some, eh, I don’t know exactly what it was about. But anyhow, somebody, so, evidently, it was Richard Avedon who asked the question, what did he think about Evans, what did he umm… you know, what kind of pictures did he have around the house? And, uh, he sort of laughed. He said well he didn’t have many pictures around the house. The only picture he owned and had where he regularly would see it was the picture of Emmit Gowin’s wife, Edith.
Calvin: Wow.
Gowin: And of course, that wasn’t the answer Richard Avedon was looking for.
Calvin: (laughs)
Gowin: He was a little bit surprised. But that’s the picture I had in mind.
Calvin: Is that the
Gowin: That’s the one I was trying to describe to you.
Calvin: Is that the one where her hands are behind her head and her elbows are outside the picture?
Gowin: No, no she’s standing, just frontal and her hands are out below her waist exiting the picture left and right, and kind of natural gesture of just like reaching out and touching two walls or a touching a doorframe. But you don’t see the frame. It’s just her hands, oh god if I had a book and I could see the page.
Calvin: Oh well I’ve got it in another room. I’ll look it up immediately to have it fresh in my mind.
Gowin: I’ll give you the page number.
Calvin: Okay, okay.
Gowin: It’s just that where I’m sitting is by my wife’s desk, and she’s out of town today.
Calvin: How is she doing?
Gowin: And so, what is sitting by her desk is a copy of the reprint, the Shidle reprint
Calvin: Uh huh,
Gowin: And it wasn’t open.
Calvin: I just saw when I was doing some more research, I think it was one of your newer books, there’s a shot of Edith with sort of a fragmented leaf over her face or in the background.
Gowin: Right, right. Yeah um that’s it that’s probably
Calvin: Or the wing of a butterfly may have been…
Gowin: That’s from that catalog Mariposis Nocturnis.
Calvin: Right.
Gowin: Its page 15.
Calvin: Page 15. Okay that’s wonderful. And you are very kind to have taken your time, this much time to speak with me and would you like me to send you a transcript of the interview when it’s done?
Gowin: That would be wonderful. If you get such a thing that would be wonderful thing just to even if I just tucked it in there for the future generations. That would be a nice thing.
Calvin: Okay. Well thank you very much, Mr. Gowin.
Gowin: Okay.
Calvin: Best of luck and uh
Gowin: Pleasure to speak with you and good luck on your paper.
Calvin: Thank you very much.


Interview Emmet Gowin by Calvin Burgamy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

i don't like what i understand

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