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Emmet Gowin

Text from Jonathan Green, American Photography: A Critical History 1945 to the Present

Emmet Gowin's and Duane Michals's photographs represent another type of risk taken in the late sixties and early seventies to expand the boundaries of the medium. Both begin with roots in the straight, metaphysical tradition. Both look for ways to extend the photographic vocabulary for spiritual, psychic, and sexual experience. Both frequently depart from the demands of the straight tradition, readily utilizing the peculiarities of lens and film. They turn to the photographic "accident," the cinematic storyboard, old time "spirit" photography, the snapshot, and conceptual art. Each uses basic exposure characteristics as a form of visual allegory: blur and brightness symbolize energy and the transformation from body to spirit; the transparency of double exposure suggests the otherworldly and the ethereal; out of focus indicates dissolution and dying; totally black or white prints become metaphors for the extremes of knowledge. Both specifically constructed situations to be photographed. For both, the darkened interior room illuminated only by curtained windows becomes a major iconographical symbol of interior life.

Michals's sensibility is essentially cinematic. He is concerned with emotion visualized as a temporal rather than a spatial phenomenon. Where Minor White had used the sequence as a constellation of metaphors, Michals would use sequential photographs as an absolutely narrative form. Michals's early, solely photographic sequences are photo fables, brief passion plays, ancient theater in modem dress. The best of this work is generated out of the tension between the literalness of photography and the artifice of drama. Here Michals shows himself as a master stage director, a master of the ironic point of view and the cinematic presentation of voyeurism and violence. In the more spiritual of these fables, however, the photographic devices become too apparent, creating Pop parodies rather than serious metaphysics. Undoubtedly feeling this limitation, Michals turned more and more to captions, extended written narratives' and literary conceits. But in doing so, he allowed the photographs to degenerate to mere illustrations of the written text. Michals opens the book Real Dreams (1976) with an image produced by scrawling words on a blank sheet of photographic paper. We are left with only the written statement of "a failed attempt to photograph reality."

Gowin succeeds precisely where Michals fails. Gowin's simple yet intensely seen daily events take on the quality of ritual. His family and friends, being finely and fully drawn, assume universal significance. Gowin's work may be seen, as may Stieglitz's photographs of O'Keeffe, as an extended sequence or family album in which the viewer comes to know Gowin's world on an intense, intimate basis. We are always aware that the characters in Michals's stories are play-acting; in Gowin's work, on the other hand, the photographer seems to merely record reality. Though his images may have begun as fiction, they are presented as fact.

Gowin is more successful because his ultimate commitment is to the medium. Michals's commitment is to the idea rather than its embodiment. "I find the limitations of still photography enormous," he wrote. Accepting visible things as sufficient evidence, Gowin believes in the capacity of the medium to express the ineffable, and the camera has rewarded that belief. His more traditional work is tied to the aesthetic of the individual, beautifully made print. Michals, ultimately disbelieving in photography as a means of passionate communication, fails to find adequate substance in visible reality. In the end it is Gowin who deals with "real dreams," while much of Michals's work is indeed "a failed attempt to photograph reality."


 


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