The Model Wife

Excerpt from the book The Model Wife, by Arthur Ollman, Director of the Museum of Photographic Art



Emmet Gowin (b. 1941)

Emmet Gowin is a contemplative man. Contemplation is a solitary activity. It requires stillness, time, and focus. He believes that the connections between things are not always apparent. He speaks slowly, deliberately, poetically. Gowin continually shows an interest in nuance, in subtle distinctions, in parsing and identifying states of the soul. The world, he posits, is what it seems to be but it is also so much more.

Emmet Gowin's work is romantic, and his romanticism is inflected by contemporary fin cie siècle awareness of time; its conflation, its melt, the way it sticks to us. Old objects, old buildings, old people, old crafts, present their splendid decay to him; Italian gardens, rugged hill towns, ancient ruins, moldering farm yards, fallow fields; a fecund nature, past its time, fairly oozing in overripeness. All attract him with a deep evocation of the past.

In 1960, he met Edith Morris at a YMCA dance. "Our attraction to one another was an alchemy beyond my analysis," says Gowin. They were married in 1964. He came of age photographically, making images of his wife's family. "I realized that my own family -- Edith's family -- was as miraculous as the most distant people in the world and they were at the same time, the most available to me, and perhaps available only to me.... I had not realized that art could be made by simply telling the story of your own life, of your own experience." Edith is seen at the center of an orbiting constellation of cousins, uncles and aunts, nieces, nephews, and neighbors, in rural Virginia. The work is infused with innocence and affection for place, for his relatives, and a tentative insertion of the artist's voice in dialogue with his heroes in the history of his medium. And one senses in his portrayal of Edith much of Stieglitz photographing O'Keeffe at Lake George. Edith Gowin seems aware, even so early in their efforts together, that she could stare soberly at the camera, as O'Keeffe did, with similar tight mouth and strong cheekbones, and equal seriousness toward the photographic enterprise. (left: Emmet Gowin, Edith, Chincoteague, Virginia, 1967, toned gelatin silver print, collection Museum of Photographic Arts)

In 1963, he visited Robert Frank in New York who encouraged him to go to graduate school only if he cared to be a photography teacher, and if he did, to study with Harry Callahan at the Rhode Island School of Design. He enrolled at RISD because of what he now describes as Harry Callahan's "poetry of feeling and intimacy -- and the revelation of a secret and unrecognized dimension m the commonplace." Callahan posited that one need look no further for the transcendent than one's own environment. What subject, after all, does one know more intimately? It was a lesson that became central to Emmet Gowin's vision.

Gowin has always credited his influences, and he is eloquent and highly expressive of his debt to Callahan. In December of 1994, he said his photographs of his spouse were "...made possible by Harry's (Callahan) work with Eleanor."

Emmet's photographs of Edith identify her as playful and spontaneous. There is also open sexuality in the Edith pictures, which exude trust and tenderness. These are not pictures that could have been made by another who might have happened to be there. They result from the particular intimacy of the Gowins, in that place, at that time, in that light, and in response to their own attraction. She is treated with warmth but never candidly. No pictures are made in the passing instant; these are not sketches or quick notations. They are moments of still reflection. Edith may enhance a moment with a gesture, her posture, or an animated expression, but, for that, they are no less contemplative.

Many of the Edith photographs are quite revealing. Emmet related that "their picture making world was first a private world. Over time, however, what had been private was moved into the public domain. Edith was strong enough emotionally to stand outside the pictures. We realized that there was no way through the pictures, to her. Her own dignity, or even her privacy, was never available to the public." Only the Gowins themselves had the key to a personal understanding of these photographs.

Throughout the course of these photographs of the 1970s and 80s, one senses increasing depth in Edith's portrayal. Emmet seemed to demand greater insight and sensibility with each new addition to the portfolio. As Edith aged, she seemed no less natural in front of the camera, no less willing to be seen, no less loved by her husband. In recent years, Emmet has made fewer photographs of his wife. Though each year new ones emerge, he feels the pressure to not repeat himself. The successful Edith picture is increasingly elusive as he has continually raised the standard.

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/27/11

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