Emmet Gowin: “Toutle River Valley in Area of Mount Saint Helens”
Published: April 6, 2011
I think he first started photographing his family—shots of his wife and her family, soft around the edges, vignetted, black and white. Sometimes nude, and sometimes not. But he moved away from that and started doing this kind of stuff—documenting old books and aerial photography, and he totally lost favor with the art world. And back when I went to art school and heard these stories, I just thought, Wow—because I had a lot of professors who said be careful what you do sometimes, because if that’s what you get known for you might have to do it for 30 years. The art world is very fickle, and when they saw this kind of stuff from Gowin they said, “We know what you do, and this ain’t it.”
But he stuck with this, and it slowly became more interesting to people, but there was a while there where I think he took a hit. But what he’s doing here is something that I like, which is this subtle, desolate decay. And that’s one of the things I like about photography: this subtle observation and investigation of, a lot of times, very ordinary objects. Especially with a landscape like this—this is not a landscape most people would photograph, because there’s not much to it. But if you look closely, you start to notice the painterly qualities of his tonal composition. So if you start spending a little more time investigating what you’re looking at, you start to see this little ravine, little water pockets, areas of different vegetation.
A lot of this involves very old-school photography techniques. I think what he’s doing, if you get close you see a warmish tone here and then kind of a blueish tone here, so he might be using split-toning. Back in the days of wet photography, split-toning is where one bath would be attracted to certain parts of the silver and then the cool tones, the cyan tone, would be done in a different bath. But these are silver-gelatin prints, and I’m not sure if in town here you can pay to have that done—because nobody wants a print anymore.
And to me, since the 1980s and ’90s, there’s this postmodern view in photography where it’s layered with text, it’s very in your face, it’s got a message in it, and it’s going to hit you with it inside of 30 seconds. And that’s what I definitely don’t like about photography. I really like this—it’s more soft, gentle, ethereal, it’s almost a poetic investigation of life through objects. It’s just very interesting—it takes something that’s big and massive and grand and flattens it into a two-dimensional tonal painting. Because with this, you think of Mount St. Helens, you’re thinking about a huge mountain and great vista views, and he’s compressed it into an odd vantage point that almost decreases its grandeur and makes it this topographical experiment.
And at the time, that may have been a bit avant-garde. Now, with Google Maps and stuff like that, it may look less sexy—but that just shows how dramatically our ideas can change by what we see all the time. And he really kept doing this aerial thing as people kept saying, “I don’t get it,” but he just stuck to his guns.
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