By Lisa Zirbel
Emmet Gowin is a contemporary American photographer most notorious for his work featuring his wife, Edith, as a long-term subject. Edith’s portraits span more than forty years and date from 1967 to 2009 (Smith 2015). This work witnesses her aging process, as well as, her shifting family dynamics including her pregnancies and the death of her mother (Gowin 2013). Gowin’s name has become synonymous with the great American photographers because of his technical skill- chiaroscuro lighting, dynamic compositions, and masterful printing- as well as, capturing very intimate moments which shatter the barrier of public voyeurism and invite the viewer into Edith’s private world.
Mid-career, Gowin made a surprising and abrupt transition into ecologically based photography. This project documents environmental landscapes from aerial views. Joel Smith, as told to Alexandra Pechman for the Aperture Foundation, says about the origins of the work:
“The beginning of [the idea of terrible beauty] can be seen in his views of Matera, Italy, made in 1980, a couple years after an earthquake that made parts of the city uninhabitable. Around the same time he was photographing Mount St. Helens, where he was beginning to have that almost aerial perspective. It was in the course of doing the aerial work that he flew over Hanford [Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington] and realized there’s this whole nuclear story in the U.S. to be told through photographs.”
However, this immersion into the destruction of the natural world eventually fatigued Gowin. In a “Q&A” interview with Princeton University Press, Gowin says, “…I came to realize that one cannot study industrial scale agriculture, excessive water usage, and the building and testing of the atomic bomb without being changed. Three visits to the Nevada Test Site were all I could endure.”
This internal conflict left Gowin at a turning point. At this time Emmet and Edith took their first trip to Ecuador. Though Gowin confirms that he had no plans to begin a new project there, he was fascinated by the place and was informed by a life-long fascination of collecting. In that same Q&A with Princeton University Press, he says about this interest:
“Even as a child I seemed to have an interest in small things, and if the small thing was alive all the better. If I drew, the drawing was usually small. Later I came to a deep reverence for insects even if I didn’t photograph them yet. In the 1970s I used a child’s small collection of insects, found dead in the windowsill, to enliven a nineteenth century book on rhetoric. That became an important image for me, though it was a singular event at the time. Later, I worked with some neighborhood boy scouts on their insect merit badge, thus learning the basics of how a collection was built. So a respect for insects has been a part of my makeup, my curiosity, for as long as I can remember.”
Gowin, Princeton University Press
Eventually, this fascination turned into a photographic collection of more than one thousand species of nocturnal moths. This project is amassed in a book titled, Mariposas Nocturnas Moths of Central and South America, A Study in Beauty and Diversity.
This collection is notable because it simultaneously makes contributions to both the fields of art and science. There is no doubt that these images- crisp, clear, with formulaic compositions and vibrant, contrasting colors- were shot by a master. Similarly unique is a strict adherence to the living collection. Unlike an etymologist’s study, Gowin took efforts to photograph the moth’s in their natural environment and to keep the creatures unharmed. He explains the photographic process:
“Rarely do they stay still except for small periods when they settle themselves under a light onto the white collecting sheet. and then only until disturbed by another insect, which is quite often. Any moth I am seeing for the first time I attempt to photograph there on the white sheet to at least have a record of the species. But as my feelings were being educated by the moths I learned which I could touch, which could be nudged, which would fly with the first flash of the strobe. Some were, of course, photographed where I found them. but as I learned my way, I found I could transfer a moth to another surface with some success. Then I might have a minute to get a decent photograph. I was always aware that my chance to make a photograph could end in an instant.”
Gowin, Princeton University Press
It is through these methods that Gowin amassed a numerous collection of living moths, sporting their unique coloring juxtaposed with a variety of textural surfaces. Though these images are beautiful, they also made contributions to the scientific community. In a brief anecdote, Gowin describes and encounter with his printer, a Panama native, who insisted that none of the species lived there (Princeton University Press). It was then that Gowin realized that he was embarking upon a thorough exploration and had the potential for scientific discovery.
One of Gowin’s models, a Panamanian Lepidoptera, was so rare that its only other recorded likeness was a painting in a museum drawer (Klein 2017). The images of Mariposas Nocturnas serve as a valuable record of the current state of diversity among the species. Gowin, with the help of researchers, has indexed and identified all 1,300 photographs, along with additional provenance records. Gowin has continued to create index posters for institutions such as the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (Klein 2017).
Moths belong to the night but Gowin has brought them to the light of the page. He has created a world of wonder with a baroque array of colors dancing before us. This unique work will continue to inform the intersections between art vs. science and collecting vs. setting free.
Gowin, Emmet, and Carlos Gollonet. Emmet Gowin. Fundacion MAPFRE, 2013.
Gowin, Emmet, and Terry Tempest Williams. Mariposas nocturnas: moths of Central and South America: a study in beauty and diversity. Princeton University Press, 2017.
Klein, Joanna. “Moths, Alive and in Color, in All Their Diversity.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Sept. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/09/25/science/moths-emmet-gowin-photos.html.
Smith, Joel and Alexandra Pechman. “Behind the Scenes of Emmet Gowin at the Morgan Library – Aperture NY.” Aperture Foundation NY, 19 May 2015, aperture.org/blog/behind-the-scenes-emmet-gowin-morgan-library-museum/.
“Q & A with Emmet Gowin, Princeton University Press.” Princeton University, The Trustees of Princeton University, press.princeton.edu/interviews/qa-11112.