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.
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…
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.
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.
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.