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Emmett Gowin and His Moth Flight Photographs

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An antique lens serving as the icon for Keith Dotson's fine art photography podcast.

In this episode, Emmet Gowin’s photographs of the flight patterns of moths

Full episode transcript

Hey everybody Keith Dotson here — welcome back to another edition of the Fine Art Photography podcast. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but when I complete an episode of this podcast, I quite often have no idea what the next episode will be about. I keep a running list of topic ideas, but each episode requires so much work — the researching, the writing, the planning, the recording, the editing — that I don’t pick an actual topic until I feel truly inspired.

For this episode, the inspiration comes from Emmett Gowin, a photographer born in a small town in southern Virginia, who earned his Master of Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design and taught for decades at Princeton University. He travelled widely photographing landscapes and documenting mankind’s environmental ravages on the Earth, but he is probably most famous for his early photographs of his young family at home in Virginia, and especially those of his lovely wife, Edith Morris. 

Most of these early images were captured using a 35mm Leica or a 4 x 5 camera on a tripod. They appear at the same time posed and spontaneous. Gowin has said that many times a photograph comes together just the right way at just the right moment, and you can’t recreate it or make it happen again.

Gowin had studied under Harry Callahan who is well-known for making photographs of his own wife, and Gowin adapted the same practice. In fact, a large part of Gowin’s body of work has been focused on their life in Virginia, their kids, and portraits of Edith in varying stages of undress. Gowin has been quoted as having said that without Edith, no one would know who he is — and I can see why he would say that. Once asked by a student how many photographs of his wife he had made, Gowin’s succinct reply was simply “not enough.”

In every image, Edith commands the frame. She has a genuine power and unaffected charisma. An article in the New Yorker said that Edith, “exudes the constancy and majesty of a towering redwood.” 

Some of the photographs are quite startling — there’s one image of Edith standing in the open doorway of a rustic wooden barn on their property, sunlight flooding in from behind her. She has raised her sheer white nightgown, and is actively urinating onto the floorboards of the barn. A puddle runs down a wide plank in the direction of the photographer. It’s so intimate that it’s hard to look at.

But the photographs that captured my imagination and made me want to talk about Gowin were very different. For 15 years, Gowin traveled to central and South America to photograph moths. That mammoth effort resulted in his 2017 book called Mariposas Nocturnas: Moths of Central and South America, A Study in Beauty and Diversity. I’ll include an Amazon link to that in the write-up. You can hear Emmett Gowin discuss that project in an interview on The Modern Art Notes Podcast by Tyler Green, episode Episode No. 307.

The book includes organized grid layouts of colorful and exotic-looking moths.

But long before that book, Gowin shot a series of images that sort of bridge the gap between his previous portraits of Edith, and the upcoming specimen photographs of the moths. And these are the images that captured my imagination and made me want to discuss Gowin on an episode.

Called “Edith and Moth Flight, 2002,” the photographs are very unusual out-of-focus portraits of Edith made at night. Edith is out of focus because Gowin had intentionally focused behind her head. It appears that Emmett had placed a flood light in the yard to attract moths, and has positioned Edith directly in front of the bright light. Because they are time exposures,  Edith’s head is surrounded by long exposure flight trails of the fluttering moths. The effect is mesmerizing — magical. Even blurry, you can recognize Edith, who was around 60 years old at the time, her hair a blazing halo in the backlight. She appears surrounded by the twists and turns of fairies in flight. Gowin has captured the invisible — the ethereal — and made it tangible. To my mind, these images are completely original.

In 2015, Gowin’s hometown inducted them both into the local Hall of Fame. The local newspaper said this about Edith:

“Edith’s life can be traced through the decades as she is seen holding her children or contemplating something greater than words in a fleeting moment. She says that sometimes the images of herself are unrecognizable, her youth’s beauty catching her off guard. Other times it’s a reminder of a specific time and place: a particular piece of clothing or a memory of the children.

‘Often I look at it and think that maybe that happened to somebody else. Was that really me? Because that was a long time ago,’ Edith said.”

I’ll close with these words from Emmet Gowin, said in 2009, “There are things in your life that only you will see, stories that only you will hear. If you don’t tell them or write them down, if you don’t make the picture, these things will not be seen, these things will not be heard.” (Source: Metalocus)

Words of wisdom indeed.

That’s all I’ve got for this episode. As always, I’ll include links to everything discussed in this episode in the write-up and on my blog — all the sources — and of course — links to places where you can see “Edith and Moth Flight, 2002.”

Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you again real soon.

Links and Sources

Edith and Moth Flight, 2002 (frontal version)

Edith and Moth Flight, 2002

Danville Register and Bee, “Photographer, wife to be inducted into Danville Hall of Fame“, Vicky Cruz, Jul 16, 2015

The New Yorker, “The Most Intimate Photograph

Mariposas Nocturnas: Moths of Central and South America, A Study in Beauty and Diversity, 2017, Emmet Gowin

https://amzn.to/3vMit6a

The Modern Art Notes Podcast, Tyler Green, Episode No. 307

Metalocus, “Discovering Emmett Gowin“, 2013

Southern Cultures, “Signs of Return

NOTE: This blog post contains an Amazon Affiliate link. I may earn a small commission on qualifying purchases.

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Keith Dotson

Keith Dotson is a professional fine art photographer who specializes in black and white landscapes, cityscapes, and abstractions from nature.

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