The X of art

Nancy, Danville, Virginia, 1969

Nancy, Danville, Virginia, 1969

The day I graduated with my master’s degree in photography, my mother told me, we’re so happy you became a photographer. I looked at her, stunned, because I knew that her intention and my father’s had been for me to follow him [in the ministry]. I have exactly his name; I was to be the stereoscopic repetition of my father. So I stared at my mother, and finally she said, ‘Oh, we were so afraid you might become an artist!”–Emmet Gowin, from “Hidden Likeness”



When I came away from the Morgan Library’s recent retrospective of Emmet Gowin’s photography, I was stunned at how he was able to make his vision both personal and universal. In the last twenty years of his career, the personal element nearly disappears as he almost completely loses himself in loving attention to the world of insects. The smallest details in Gowin’s images often carry a lot of weight, and yet there’s very little detail in his work that anchors it to a particular era or even a particular place. His family photographs from half a century ago could have been shot decades earlier as a contrarian vision of idyllic bliss in Depression-era Appalachia—or in any number of other rural places. His aerial glimpses of catastrophes or environmental blight or nuclear testing sites remind me of shots relayed back from Pluto or Mars, or maybe fragments of inconclusive clues from one of Fox Mulder’s X-files. The truth is out there, but you won’t know what you’re looking for until you’ve shot it and brought it home. His wonderfully humble photographic catalogs of moths and butterflies in South America could be taxonomies from an entomology textbook, or a sequence of pictograms from a lost language. They are powerful in part because he is a lone explorer finding and honoring such tiny, obscure moments of nature’s inexhaustible beauty. The longer he has worked, the more universal his images look, and yet you can feel his idiosyncratic passion in every image.

It’s a wonder how much mystery and enigma he manages to convey, subliminally, in his early, joyful explorations of his lovely, exuberant family. They’re funny and strange and beguiling all at once, drawing you in with warmth and then pushing you away when you try to explain their haunting quality. Yet the pulse of that mystery, implicit in those pictures of people he loves, becomes in his later photography, almost more visible than what he’s literally depicting. Mystery becomes the subject, while the facts of what you’re seeing feel obscure, or beside the point. One of the most powerful images in the show, as confining as a fever dream, seems both other-worldly and petrified: it’s an accidental double-exposure of two shots, one of an Avebury Stone and the other of his wife’s grandmother in her coffin. It’s hard to make anything out at first. Then you see the figure. It looks as if her coffin is a whirlpool, a milky sinkhole, drawing everything around it down—not up—into another world, and yet everything in the shot also appears to be solid and motionless as the stone. For me, it was the uncanniest image in the whole exhibit, which had more than its share of charming visions of unsettling things.

Almost every photograph is a testament to Gowin’s ability to maintain an awareness of contrary states, the polarities of science and spirit, good and evil, the arcane and the obvious, the everyday and the mythic, the human and divine. He’s absorbed by the meaning and beauty and value of every “minute particular” in the natural and human world balanced by a deep conviction of how little we understand any of it and how quickly it’s gone.



In the weeks after I got home from my visit to the Morgan, I studied various conversations Gowin has had about his work, because I was fascinated by the way he and the Morgan’s curators had found drawings and prints in their collection to pair with his photography. The cashier in the gift shop, where I bought the “Hidden Likeness” catalog, told me, “He worked with us for a year and a half picking out pieces from the permanent collection.” It was stunning to hear how much dedication he’d brought to the rare privilege of selecting earlier work from the Morgan’s collection to be shown alongside his own. Who wouldn’t want a retrospective that lets your work rub elbows with past masters, but who would have invested eighteen months into that excavation? The risk would be that your contemporary work would be elbowed out the door, but in this case, it looked at home. This tactic of elucidating ‘hidden likenesses’ was also a generous way to make public dozens of small works that might otherwise have gone unseen for years.

Nearly everything in the show, other than the work from Blake, was new to me. The mix of old art and new photography enhanced the sense of newness all around. Even the oldest work felt fresh and fascinating when nestled in with Gowin’s. There were many arresting juxtapositions. A drawing of the scene before the Crucifixion hung near Gowin’s shot of a nuclear testing site with its grid of craters. Gowin’s startling and moving photograph of a boy and girl from his family resting after horseplay on the grass (an innocent pose that looks suggestive in an unsettling way, as Sally Mann’s family photography would look later on) was shown directly above a drawing of St. Christopher with his lopped-off head at his feet. One of Blake’s most sublime visions of nature’s power, in the figures of Behemoth and Leviathan, accompanied a Gowin photograph of a devastated copper mine tailing.

I’d been drawn to this exhibit to see how Gowin had assimilated and internalized Blake’s poetry and paintings. He says, in the Morgan catalog: “Something led me to pick up The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and reading that helped me realize that here was a kindred soul struggling with the precepts of Christianity and attempting to integrate experience into the mystery of Christianity.” Gowin’s undemonstrative faith isn’t nearly as apparent in his photography as Blake’s appropriation of Gnosticism as a framework for his personal mythology. Yet from Gowin’s discussions of his work, the relationship between his imagination and Blake’s was one of the central “hidden likenesses” in the show. Wendell Berry is another of his heroes and it’s easy to see why. To wit: Berry has written that a farmer’s topsoil imitates Jesus in its “passivity and beneficence and the penetrating energy that issues out of its peaceableness.”

Gowin’s work follows in the footsteps of Berry’s topsoil. He doesn’t hector the viewer about anything. He doesn’t oppose or condemn. He views with suspicion anyone who believes in a certain set of truths contrary to the views of others. His work arises from, to borrow a phrase I’m sure he knows, a cloud of unknowing. He says,

. . . in the 1980s when there was an aura around the art of postmodernism and political critique that struck me as having the same tone as fundamentalism. I had experienced fundamentalism as a child, and I had rejected it as a modality. It just seemed too self-serving, the idea that our crowd has all the answers, and the rest of you are lost.”

Rather than configure his shots of environmental blight as a warning, when he photographs landscapes that have been ruined or assaulted by human activities he echoes Yeats when he refers to their “terrible beauty.” Coming away from the show I felt that his long documentation of disasters and ecological catastrophes, shot from the air above these scenes, wasn’t primarily a condemnation of human encroachment. There’s plenty of sorrow in the work, yet Gowin’s vision is a dispassionate and almost non-judgmental glimpse of what human life does to everything around it. As it creates, it destroys. We are both prolific and devouring, in Blake’s terms, and in either phase, there’s an alchemy that transforms the world into something rich and strange, for better or worse. Gowin’s images suggest an almost Hindu acceptance of creation and destruction as a unity, another pairing of necessary opposites. Gowin’s other great mentor, the photographer, Frederick Sommer, calls for “quality of attention span” as the foundation of creative work, adding—and this is the crux of it—“the important thing is to use it for acceptance, not negation.” In Gowin, this is what comes through more clearly than anything else: there is no complaint, no strident advocacy, but simply a willingness to see what’s there and recognize the beauty and strange grandeur even in horrific environmental decay. Sounding like Lao-Tzu, with a touch of Chauncey Gardner, he says, “Even in destroying the earth, we have to observe the natural order. Gravity still works, water still runs downhill.” As Keats recognized, there’s beauty in doom, too. Take these photographs as a warning if you like—it would be smart to do so—but Gowin’s job is to be a witness to mystery. In his most desolate images you feel an awareness that no matter what we do, we’re merely scratching the skin of a world that takes little notice of our footprint—nature will regenerate itself, regardless of our skin-deep violations of it. This is to say Gowin takes the long view, if you can view things from the perspective of eternity.

In the past two decades of his career, like Thoreau in his journals, Gowin seems to have completely surrendered himself to nature. The press release for the exhibit summarizes the passion of this last phase perfectly:

Since the late 1990s, Gowin has been working in the rain forests of Central and South America, photographing hundreds of species of moths. To provide backdrops for his insect portraits, he travels with a binder full of details scanned from beloved drawings, manuscripts, and other documents; each image records a miniature encounter between culture and nature. He assembles his portraits into grids of twenty-five creatures native to one location. In the exhibition, a grid from Bolivia hangs near a small Belgian book of hours (ca. 1515) that is open to a painting in which Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary she will conceive the son of God. The scene is bordered by meticulously rendered flowers and insects. Like Gowin’s moths—an encoded plea for the value of wilderness—these painted species convey messages. The lilies stand for purity and chastity; the pink carnations, maternal love; and the butterflies are symbols of resurrection.

In the interview included in the show’s catalog, Gowin says that he read the Bible several times before he was twelve years old, and much of it struck him as utterly true, and yet he didn’t find the stories of the Resurrection nearly as compelling as, for example, the wisdom of the beatitudes. Ironically, given this recollection, one thing I felt running through all of his work was an implicit assurance that life always returns, one way or another—the prolific rises up despite the devouring, and what appears to be doom may be the door to something unimaginably wonderful. The caterpillar liquefies inside a chrysalis and somehow a butterfly regenerates itself from the ooze and emerges—retaining memories from the caterpillar even though its body has turned to fluid. How this happens is, at the very least, an astonishing puzzle.

Gowen must know all this. It seems these tiny images of moths and butterflies are each an emblem of the power of art, and nature itself, to transform the creeping earthbound caterpillar of daily experience into something rich and strange and weightlessly, superfluously gorgeous. Caliban becomes Ariel. These images of metamorphosis are about as close as one can get to a symbol for that part of the Bible that failed to stir Gowin’s imagination in childhood. Metamorphosis is a ready-made metaphor for resurrection. It’s hard to discern the specifics of Gowin’s personal faith, though it must be a bit unorthodox, if Blake is his hero. Yet the “mystery of Christianity” as he puts it sounds central to his life work. It takes grit (in this skeptical age where the politics of both right and left poisons everything it touches, especially discussions of religion and faith) for a venerable Princeton professor to describe how he recognizes the best picture in a series of shots in this way: “Now that my mind has adjusted to the picture and I see what it offers us, I don’t think of it as being my creation but the creation of everyone involved, and of nature and of the Holy Spirit. You can’t willfully bring about something transcendent. Some alchemy has to be involved.”


I was awed by the show, but it wasn’t until I read that sentence, and then a string of others like it, that Gowin had my complete attention. In the weeks after I got home, I compiled as much as I could find of his thoughts about his work. From what he has said about it, he sees himself as an instrument of a spiritual collaboration, a man with a bit more volition than the machine he’s using to create his image, but without the privilege of claiming to be the sole agent of his own work. His job is simply to be there as something happens that he couldn’t have predicted—to see it and catch it, often without recognizing what he’s seen at the time, and maybe not for months or years afterward. He captures something that is at least partly beyond his understanding, and something completely beyond his ability to make happen. Justifiably, he believes this is true of photography in ways that aren’t applicable to painting, since painting is often the slow accretion of multiple choices, trial and error, and planning, with nearly total control over all variables, insofar as the painter is a professional, anyway. This is true especially of still lifes, which can be entirely “set up,” but here’s the thing. It isn’t true at all of the subconscious metamorphosis that transforms any repetitive act of craft into art. Gowin recognizes the mystery of his engagement with the world, but he doesn’t realize that painters can be engaged in exactly the same way, hoping for the luck and grace needed to bring a painting alive. (A glance at Vermeer’s less successful paintings says it all. Even the greatest couldn’t always count on being able to do what they did at their best. They knew how to do only so much: their greatness was a gift.)

But the more you listen to Gowin talk about his work, the more he expresses a universal wisdom about of how the imagination operates, and what he says doesn’t apply exclusively to photography. Here are a few samples from the catalog:

I felt that in a photograph . . . meaning belongs in some way to the scene itself and to the moment, not to the photographer’s intention.

You can’t really know what you are doing and do something new. When you do something new, you intuitively realize that maybe there are good reasons why you took that strange step that seemed unexplainable . . . you need not know exactly what you’re doing to still be active and at least aim in the general direction of the target, which is the mystery of life.

The idea of conceptual art is to identify the parameters before the work of art is made and you can do some spectacular things in what seems like reverse order. But the impact of a work of art comes into us as a feeling, just as the impact of nature enters us as a feeling. . . . in art something can be shown that puts us in accord with a feeling that is totally human.

Inspiration becomes an understandable idea when you realize that your work was never in your mind. You never totally understood it before you made it, and only after you made it do you realize how much substance it has. It has a voice of its own and, in fact, it has a clarity. It evokes more than you understood and more than you intellectually could have put into it. What a blessing that is, to look at something you’ve made and say, ‘I never could have made it. It just came out this way.”

Those last two sentences apply just as strongly to painting. He mentions how he loved the fact that Blake would make copies of his own work, though Gowin may not realize that the attempt to copy a previous painting teaches you everything you need to know about how even the most reliable, repeatable techniques will never produce the same painting twice. I know because I’ve attempted a couple duplicates of earlier paintings, and they are no such thing. There are too many chance variables in pushing various globs of paint together and then applying it with varying pressure and depth on a stretch of canvas: the choreography of the process is so complex it would be impossible to remember and repeat even a minute of a project that took months to complete—or even just hours. (Especially difficult would be the ones that take only a few hours.) In the end, it’s the same painting, in a superficial sense, but it ends up being unique.

Gowin’s point though is that meaning follows the act of making it: the creativity of art is finding new ways to express something you didn’t even know needed to be expressed, until you did it. It isn’t about illustrating knowledge you already possess. When Archimedes steps into his bath, he has no idea he’s going to discover how to measure the mass of a gold crown, but he creates a new solution to his problem in that moment of recognition by simply paying attention to the water that overflows the edges of the tub. Over time Gowin said he learned “just be patient with yourself, and hold back judgment, and hold back big ideas, and just pay attention to what’s happening around you. And you get little clues. Pretty soon, you’re doing something, and you say, almost by surprise, I guess this is where I was going, but I didn’t know it at the time.

It’s concordant with Robert Frost’s description of writing a poem:

Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting. Its most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it. Read it a hundred times: it will forever keep its freshness as a petal keeps its fragrance. It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.

Gowin from the catalog: “I never made a picture that was exactly what I intended to make. And anything that was any good was always something of a surprise.” And From Bomb magazine:

Everything that makes you an artist in a sense is the way things are understood: how they fit together in ways that have not been understood before. How can you discover the inherent value that’s hidden in things that you haven’t yet seen? . . . There has to be the confrontation with something inexplicable, something you didn’t intend to do and that has so much presence you say, “Okay, I don’t expect you to go away, but I don’t know what you’re good for.” Chemistry and the sciences are full of this kind of thing. And that’s what’s underneath the creative life for artists, how to grasp the interrelationships that exist in the world in a way that hasn’t been done before. . . .

You have to make a room inside your own ego for what you don’t yet understand, and hold open the possibility that this is what you’re actually looking for. But you can acknowledge inside yourself those things which you did not perceive until the encounter forced you into a recognition.

What he’s talking about is parallel to how painting works. The point isn’t to express something formulated ahead of time, or translatable into other terms, but to hope that the act of making a painting invests into the work more than the conscious effort required to finish it. It’s impossible to make this happen through an act of will, or by learning a technique. Gowin’s job, as a photographer, is simply to be awake enough to capture something unconsciously as it happens, instantaneously, something he couldn’t have intentionally caused to happen.

Yet a painter has just as impossible a task—to produce something that resonates with that same “X” that Gowin is trying to describe with words like “feeling” or “intuition.” The painter does it by learning how to do many things at a technical level, mix and handle paint, prepare a canvas, or see the actual color of a shadow. Acquiring all of those skills won’t add up to that “X,” for which there is no adequate language. The “X” has to happen on its own in the course of making the painting, just as it has to happen in front of Gowin’s camera and in his unconscious, reflexive response to what he sees. And that “X” is at the heart of far more than art, which is why Gowin keeps returning to his faith when he speaks of his photography. For him, they sound almost indistinguishable.

I had a recent group email discussion my brother and my cousin and David Roberts, a mathematician, who wrote: “I will just mention one facet of mathematical beauty, but which I think is also evident in other fields: an interplay between surprise and inevitability.” It’s another way of looking at what Gowin is trying to say, over and over: that you can’t know what you’re going to produce until you recognize it as you work. The work has to surprise the one who creates it, in some degree or other, if there’s any hope of surprising anyone else with it—and that surprise comes from a recognition of beauty, the inevitable “just right” quality something great always has. What it is that you recognize, in that moment of surprise, in that experience of beauty, is something you can see, instantly, but is much harder to express in any other way than through the act of making it and looking at it. (The long-windedness of this post ought to be proof enough of that.)

When he says “the impact of a work of art comes into us as a feeling, just as the impact of nature enters us as a feeling,” he desperately needs another noun. I would say it’s more than a feeling if the band Boston hadn’t ruined that sentence for all of us. We all need another word. When you try to put into words what a work of art actually is, and what it does, you almost have to end up resorting to another art form—poetry. It isn’t that great art conveys more than a feeling, or less, but that feeling is only one component of its “meaning.” But in this case, again, “meaning” isn’t quite the word either.

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