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Emmet Gowin: Changing the Earth


"The astonishing thing to me is that in spite of all we have done, the earth still offers back so much beauty, so much sustenance. So much of what we need is embodied in it."

- Emmet Gowin


The James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, PA is proud to announce a major exhibition of aerial photography by Bucks County resident Emmet Gowin. Emmet Gowin: Changing the Earth opens on January 17, 2004 in the Fred Beans Gallery and runs through April 4th. Arguably Bucks County's best-known living artist, Gowin has created hundreds of compelling aerial images since the early 1980s of military test sites, battlefields, mining areas, and missile silos in locations including Oregon, Kuwait and the Czech Republic. (right: Emmet Gowin, Natural Drainage Systems near the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Station, Arizona, 1988, Toned gelatin silver print, Collection of the Yale University Art Gallery)

Gowin, a native of Danville, Virginia and longtime resident of Bucks County, received his BFA from Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University) in spring of 1965, where his undergraduate thesis dealt with the pioneering writings and photography of Alfred Stieglitz. He went on to pursue his MFA at Rhode Island School of Design, where he studied under Harry Callahan, who would become the artist's lifelong teacher, mentor and friend.

Gowin began taking aerial photographs when he was commissioned to document the aftermath of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Returning from what he believed would be his last flight over the area in 1986, Gowin took a side trip over the Hanford Reservation -- the now-deserted city where uranium had been enriched for use in atomic bombs and nuclear reactors four decades earlier. It was, in Gowin's words, "a flight that changed my whole perception of the age in which I live." (left: Emmet Gowin, Drainage Ditches in a low Agricultural Field, Savannah River Nuclear Site, SC, 1992, Toned gelatin silver print, Collection of the Yale University Art Gallery)

Old Hanford City Site and the Columbia River, Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington, 1986, was the first in a series of aerial photographs that would cover sixteen years of Gowin's career, recording sites throughout the U.S. and around the world where human intervention has radically altered the appearance of the earth. "What I saw, imagined, and now know, was that a landscape had been created that could never be saved," he says of his first flight over Hanford Reservation.

These aerial images offer the viewer a glimpse at our world from a privileged and rarely seen vantage, prompting questions about the essence of nature, and about our own role as humans on earth. "It is clear from talking with Gowin that he has come to understand his own place and time in the universe more fully through observing the earth from great distances of elevated physical perspective," says curator Reynolds. Devoid of the traditional horizon lines and other elements of landscape photos, Gowin's aerial images force the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions, make personal references and visual associations. Extreme beauty and extreme cruelty exist side by side, within the same frame, in this work.

In addition to the moral and environmental concerns evident in his images, Reynolds notes Gowin's deep respect for the craft of photography, calling him "one of the finest producers of hand-toned prints in the world." Among the artists Gowin pays homage to in his exquisitely detailed work are Walker Evans, Frederick Sommer, Robert Frank, Aaron Siskind, and Harry Callahan. (right: Emmet Gowin, Old Hanford City Site & the Columbia River, Hanford Nuclear Reservation, near Richland, Washington, 1986, Toned gelatin silver print, Collection of the Yale University Art Gallery)

"I believe that difficult images bring us all closer to a shared experience," Gowin says... "A picture is like a prayer, an offering, and hopefully an opening through which to seek what we don't know, or already know and should take seriously."

In conjunction with the exhibition, Yale University Art Gallery, in association with the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Yale University Press, has published a hardbound catalog featuring 92 full-color illustrations of Gowin's aerial work. Edited by Reynolds, Changing the Earth includes an essay and interview by Terry Tempest Williams and Philip Brockman.

The first comprehensive exploration of the artist's aerial work, this exhibition has been organized by the Yale University Art Gallery in association with the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and is sponsored in Doylestown by Branch Valley Associates, Inc.; Feeney's Nursery; Keller Williams Real Estate, Doylestown; and Worth & Company, Inc. The exhibition is curated by Jock Reynolds, Henry J. Heinz II Director of the Yale University Art Gallery.

rev. 12/29/03

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