In Conversation: Emmet Gowin

Emmet Gowin, eminent photographer and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University, looks back and reviews his life’s work and involvement with photography in a talk at the museum on Saturday, February 2 at 2pm . The lecture is $10 for museum members and $15 for general public admission.  Gowin’s strking photos capturing the tragic aftermath of the volcanic eruption of Mt. St. Helens are on view in American Vesuvius: The Aftermath of Mount St. Helens by Frank Gohlke and Emmet Gowin. In a recent conversation, we asked him to reflect on those experiences and the life of making art that followed. 

Q1: How did you end up going to Mt. St. Helens to take your first aerial photographs? What do you remember about the experience? 
A: It was something that almost didn’t happen. I was having trouble getting access and then I met a pilot that was working out of Seattle and he was the connection that got me over the mountain.  He was flying researchers over the site and he got me in as a “researcher.”
I had probably seen 10,000 photographs of Mt. St. Helens before I was there. Every gas station was selling some image commemorating the eruption and the landscape.  But once I flew over it, it felt as if nothing had been looked at.  You get there and you’re just overtaken by what exists.  I felt immediately interested and I continued to go back to Mt. St. Helens for the next five to six years.

Q2:  What are the challenges with aerial photography?
A:  One of the things you learn in the air is that you can never fly through the same spot again. You never see it from the same point of view again. On the ground you can find where someone put the tripod and set up the picture the same way. In the air it’s shocking; the perspective doesn’t look the same from any angle.

Q3: How did your initial experiences change your ways of working?
A: I think I treasured spontaneity all along. But if I needed to be sent to school to learn how fragile and unrepeatable every experience is, being in the air really made me value that. It made me treasure every moment on the ground even more.

Q4: What do you appreciate about photography?
A: I appreciate everything about it. And in a funny way nothing too much. It was the instrument of my education and it is still the instrument of my education. Since my own initial encounter with photography, there is nothing each educates each individual as personally as making a photograph.
There was a time lag between the picture making and waiting for the result.  Looking at your own photograph for the first time is when you discover the little things that were meaningful in the picture that you hadn’t really seen.
The act of making and looking at pictures pictures is right up there with reading. It is how we open up to what’s really new, inside of and outside of ourselves, what we were dreaming of and trying to find.

Q5: What, if anything, happening in photography has gotten you really excited right now? 
A:  I was recently flying over the south of Spain and I got in the airplane and I knew I was going to use my digital camera for all sorts of reasons.  My camera had room for 387 images and I didn’t think I was going to take that many photos. By the end of the second hour, I had taken almost that many pictures. You could never have done that with a traditional camera. The pictures are amazingly good. They are clearer, better and more color balanced than I could have ever hoped for.



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