How I met Emmet Gowin on Valentine’s Day

So, seriously, I went to Jackson Fine Art to see the Bruce Davidson show, and I’m standing there, and in walks Emmet Gowin, who (if you don’t know) is one of the greatest photographers in the 190 years since the invention of the medium. He was there on business for an upcoming show, so I struck up a conversation with his wife Edith (the subject of so many of Emmet’s most famous and intense photographs) who was carrying her adorable grandson Sage. He had turned five this very day!

Emmet Gowin by Sam Fentress, 1977

Emmet Gowin by Sam Fentress, 1977

Edith and I ended up talking for about 20 minutes on everything from Angry Birds to contemporary photography, the overwhelming multitude of images being produced today, Emmet’s new work, his old work and how an artist struggles to become more than just a greatest hits collection.

Eventually she took me over to Emmet and I had a chance to reintroduce myself (we had spoken after an event at the High Museum two years ago) and talk with him about his work. I asked him about the beautiful toning of his landscape work from the US and Jordan — he told me it was an older formula called Polytoner, which is no longer made — and he showed me several of his new pieces from a recent series on insects in Panama. It truly moved me to be speaking with people so deeply connected with the history of photography and so deeply committed to the medium.

You don’t have to be a Luddite to understand that, in this modern age, we face an inexhaustible cascade of stimuli that all compete for our time and attention. You neither need to wear a top hat to realize that almost all of it is garbage. Seriously. How often do we all waste hours and hours of our lives meandering around on the internet, engaged in mindless activities of little consequence? And how often do we truly take the time to pay attention to great music, great books, great artists or even other people?

Emmet Gowin is an artist I truly admire. To create a body of work such as his is not the stuff of the internet generation, where you get what you want when you want it, and distraction is a mouse click away. No, this is the product of decades of hard work and focused, thoughtful attention.

I think of this quote from Frederick Sommer: “The important thing is quality of attention span, and to use it for acceptance rather than negation. Poetry is the quality of our acts. It’s what we do every day, in the simplest way, that counts.”

Perhaps the thing I love most about great photography is the sense it gives that the photographer was tremendously alive. Gowin’s work has always done that for me. We should all maybe try a little harder.