The Museum Welcomes the Emmet Gowin Archive

Emmet Gowin (born 1941, Danville, VA), Edith, Ruth and Mae, Danville, Virginia, 1967. Gelatin silver print, 20.3 × 25.4 cm When I arrived at Princeton in 2013, I had not yet had the pleasure of meeting the renowned photographer and Princeton professor emeritus Emmet Gowin. Once I did, I was immediately struck by his ability to exude excitement and knowledge, curiosity and calm, kindness and straightforwardness. There’s always a twinkle in Emmet’s eye that makes me smile, and perhaps it’s my imagination, but I notice it most right before he tells me about something wonderful that he’s seen or photographed recently. Getting to know Emmet and his equally amazing wife, Edith, has been one of the great joys of my time at the Museum, and working with them both to bring the Emmet Gowin archive to Princeton has been one of my greatest honors.

Emmet and Edith, by Emmet’s account, “were born about a year and a mile apart, in the same town—Danville, Virginia.” About their marriage in 1964, he has written: “I entered into a family freshly different from my own. I admired their simplicity and generosity and thought of the pictures I made as agreements. I wanted to pay attention to the body and personality that had agreed out of love to reveal itself. . . . Through the lives of new relatives, my more whole family, I returned to the mood that finds solemnity in daily life.”1

Four people looking at a book sitting on a table in a conference room.Sixty years later, Emmet and Edith have ensured the Gowin archive will serve as the comprehensive archive of Emmet’s life’s work as an artist and teacher and a resource for future research, publications, and exhibitions. The archive—which will continue to grow as Emmet produces new works—already contains thousands of objects, including more than 650 photographs; approximately 7,000 contact sheets; negatives; correspondence; book maquettes; and works by other artists, including Harry Callahan, Walker Evans, Sally Mann, and Aaron Siskind.

Emmet joined the faculty of Princeton University’s Visual Arts Program in 1973 at the invitation of Peter C. Bunnell, the newly appointed inaugural McAlpin Professor of the History of Photography and Modern Art. In a recent email exchange, Emmet shared this reflection: “That all seems so far in the past now, but I can still feel clearly how I felt then. I was, of course, extremely grateful to Peter Bunnell. Peter’s recommendation and confidence in my work was the key that opened this opportunity and for which I will always be most grateful. Peter and I formed a kind of photography team. Soon enough, I realized that teaching at Princeton was a good environment for me. You could say that intellectually I grew up there. Something just worked; I was learning from the students, and there were things I knew and trusted which the students valued. It just felt just right from both sides. I have always felt a great pride in the relationships which formed between our students and within the classes I taught.”

aerial view of land with several irrigation circlesThe subject of numerous exhibitions and publications, Emmet has received various accolades, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (1974) and two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships (1977, 1979). His most recent book, The One Hundred Circle Farm (Princeton University Press, 2022) reflects his long-standing engagement with aerial photography. Between 1987 and 1995, Emmet photographed land in the western and midwestern United States that had been cultivated using center-pivot irrigation, an industrial-scale agricultural practice. Invented by an American farmer in 1940, this method allows crops to be watered in a more even, efficient manner. Seen from above, these circular plots create geometric patterns on the earth’s surface. Initially drawn to the beauty of the patterns, Emmet now knows this agricultural method is unsustainable because it draws water from aquifers that cannot replenish themselves, thereby draining finite water resources.

Emmet’s ongoing desire to reflect on humankind’s relationship with the natural world can be seen in his series Mariposas Nocturnas (Princeton University Press, 2017), which was inspired in part by the literature of nineteenth-century naturalists. From 2001 to 2016, Emmet catalogued in close-up color photographs more than one thousand species of nocturnal moths in Central and South America. On a trip with biologists to the tropical forests of southern Panama, he brought along a tracing of Edith’s silhouette.

black and white double exposure of a silhouette and leaves with a butterfly in the bottom rightHe recalls, “Toward morning of our last night in camp, I remembered the silhouette of Edith and placed it against the light of the collecting sheet. . . . I was not prepared for the vividness and energy of its force. Her shadow held strangely and fully her presence, and . . . she seemed to be truly there, vivid and alive.”2 I especially love how a work like Double Edith with Rothschildia combines Emmet’s abiding love for Edith, in the form of her ever-present shadow, with an ecological approach that brings awareness to the biodiversity of the insect world (now under threat from human activity). It is a beautiful tribute.

The Gowin archive will likewise serve as a tribute to Emmet, who for thirty-six years used the Museum’s outstanding photography holdings in his teaching, animating classroom discussions and inspiring his students. For this gift, we offer our deep and sustained gratitude to Emmet and Edith.

Katherine A. Bussard
Peter C. Bunnell Curator of Photography

1 Emmet Gowin, Emmet Gowin: Photographs (New York: Knopf, 1976), 100.

2 Emmet Gowin, Mariposas Nocturnas: Moths of Central and South America; A Study in Beauty and Diversity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 123.