Here's a deep treasure fished out of photography's recent past, rescued and revived by Steidl and the Pace McGill Gallery (where there was a show of the work this past spring). Emmet Gowin: Photographs is another of my long-time favorite photobooks, available once again, after many years, in a lovely new reprint. A straightlaced young man from a strict upbringing married into a more freewheeling, open, and expressive family and made art of the collision, with the fully open eyes of one who belongs but sees everything as if it were new (and astonishing). A book made out of the energy of young love and new freedom, and ambition.
In retrospect this is something of a period piece. The sparse highlights pulled up out of the inky blacks is a printing style that now looks very '70s. Gowin includes Sommeresque landscapes, extreme wide angles, the dense, textured, flat-field arrays that would preoccupy his later work, and a Callahan-like extended portrait of his wife Edith. But it's the snapshot-made-art quality of his new family's faces, bodies, activities, environs, and lives that are the core of the book. Lives and deaths, I should say.
Some of the pictures were made with a medium-format lens mounted on a view camera, making the pictures circular, with the areas outside the image circle carefully burned to gray or black by the photographer (who had the reputation of being a virtuoso printer). The effect is like a keyhole, or like a peephole in a door, although we're looking in, not out. It enhances the feeling that we're seeing something private and essential.
I knew this book very well as a student, and in the mid '80s I got to meet Edith Gowin. I told friends at the time that it was like meeting Lincoln, another famous subject of many photographs. To me she had a legendary quality. She spoke, however, in a high-pitched voice with more than a trace of a mountain twang, her words full of warmth and generosity. (Lincoln, too, is described by contemporaries as having a peculiar-sounding, high-pitched voice.) Not at all like the imposing, vivid, and somewhat dark figure, half wild lover, half earth mother, that inhabits the book.
Emmet Gowin: Photographs contains one of my all-time favorite pictures, too, called Nancy, a picture that could neither be simpler nor more rare. (Reproduced in this article from a while back.)
I'll probably have to get the new edition, which is very faithful to the old one but better made (and hardcover). Even though I must say I don't like the new cover. The edition I have, in paperback, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1976. It cost me $4.47, which means I bought it used. I got it perhaps four or five years after it came out. One of the essential books in my library. I look at it every year. A book that's grown with me, like a much-loved piece of music.
(Here's the U.K. link.)