Emmet Gowin embarked on an artistic journey when he observed an image that had become commonplace, and discovered something others had overlooked.
“I was taking pictures of Mount St. Helens for a Seattle, Wash., state survey after the mountain’s eruption,” he relates. “I’d seen thousands of pictures of it, and none of them looked like what I’d seen.”
Most journalism focused on the disaster, but he found the place somehow serene. On one side of the mountain, the glaciers were covered by dark gray ash, but he could see their borders in black.
“It was really beautiful,” he reflects. “Then I saw the same place again in twilight, and the black line had disappeared. The mountain would refreeze every night and then thaw again during the day. I had never considered that a mountain could be organic like that.” Something clicked in his mind. Since Mount St. Helens, the Princeton art professor has traveled all over the world to document changes to the globe.
Changing the Earth, the first major exhibit of Gowin’s work in over 10 years, assembles 92 images at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. A book was published last year by Yale University Press, and Gowin delivered the Stegner Lecture at the University of Utah on April 25. “Any time I give a talk, I try to bring particular stories of coming into an awareness that can’t be told by the picture itself,” Gowin says. “For example, we can’t describe what a picture of love looks like, yet some pictures can put us in touch with that feeling.”
How are they able to do that? “We can’t explain it. It’s as if the picture is speaking to us, and yet not saying anything.”
In 1985, he took photographs in Turkey in one of the earliest Christian monastic communities. The monks were working on stones with the consistency of cinder block. “Then two years later,” Gowin recalls, “I went back to retake a shot I felt I hadn’t gotten right the first time. I turned the corner, and the stone wasn’t there; it was lying on the ground in rubble. It had lasted some 2,000 years, then was lost. It just seemed to enclose something about our lives on earth.”
The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state spoke to him just as strongly. “I didn’t want to know about it at first,” he admits. But in just a few minutes over the site he found the poignancy of it was something he just had to accept. There were levels of mystery in the earth, even though it had been damaged.
“I was aware that it might be one of the most poisoned landscapes in the world, yet it was still strangely beautiful,” he remembers. “The sun striking the grass, that light was innocent of the condition of the landscape being poisoned.”
In observing the earth changing, he’s seen himself change as well, gaining a Zen-like viewpoint. “Mount St. Helens wasn’t something I’d intended to do,” he says. “It was just there. The sense of looking at something you don’t completely understand makes you want to learn.”
He also discovered that often the subject chooses the artist. “It’s a visual poetic reaction,” Gowin believes. “We believe we have a solid foundation, then in a moment our minds are reorganized. We tend to see the world in terms of what it can do for us, and feel shortchanged when things go against our preferred order.”
This long after Mount St. Helens, he’s still making uncommon observations: “There is something physically intimate about photographs. I try to make the image on paper like a living thing itself. How much of an aliveness is built into objects. Realizing that is the force driving every artist and scientist, but it’s available to anyone.”