Monday, March 16, 2009

Emmet Gowin: Photographs @Pace/MacGill

JTF (just the facts): A total of 44 black and white gelatin silver prints, matted with white frames, hung throughout the gallery on red and grey walls. The exhibition is a mix of vintage and later prints of negatives from the period 1963-1975, and coincides with a reprint of the 1976 book Emmet Gowin: Photographs, recently published by Steidl and Pace/MacGill in 2009. All of the prints are small, printed on 8x10 (or reverse) paper, most of the images being either approximately 9x7 or 6x6. (Installation shot at right courtesy of the Pace/MacGill website, since no personal photos were allowed.)

Comments/Context: In our high technology digital age, where a great many of the prints we see (both fine art and vernacular) are churned out by the "lab", we seem to have lost our ability to fall in love with truly beautiful prints, where the print is the ultimate object and expression of the artist's craft, not just a representation of the subject or the viewpoint of the photographer. The current show of Emmet Gowin's photographs from the 1960s and 1970s was a jaw dropping reminder for me of just how dramatic superb black and white prints can be.

As most collectors likely know, the early part of Gowin's career was focused on intimate and personal portraits of his wife Edith, their children and extended family, and rural life in Virginia and abroad. These are graceful pictures, full of subtle movements and behaviors that give us clues to the relationships between the people. There are images of the family on Christmas morning, surrounded by a mountain of discarded wrapping paper, Edith sitting by a window or behind a screen door, Edith with her aging grandparents, or Edith nude in the kitchen. Like Harry Callahan's extended portrait of his wife Eleanor, Gowin has made dozens of pictures of Edith, telling a much broader and more complicated story than can be captured in a single frame. She is the center, around which the narrative of the rest of the family revolves. Other pictures in the series capture moments of rural life and country living (at home and in Europe) and twisting trees and branches outside their home, often printed in circular form on square paper, with the dark edges of black intruding from the corners, creating small distortions and a claustrophobic tunnel vision.
While I was certainly aware of these pictures, I hadn't ever seen many of them up close, and so I was surprised and amazed by these sublime prints. Each one gathers your attention and rewards long, careful looking. In many, Edith's stony glare is mesmerizing. Particularly for self described "print junkies", this is show not to be missed.

The reprint of the book is available from the gallery for $60.
Collector's POV: Most of the prints in the show are priced at $6500, with a handful at $7500, $8000 or $10000. A few prints of Edith from this series can be found at auction from time to time, generally under $5000, but most of these images haven't been readily available in the secondary market. My particular favorite is Edith, Danville, Virginia, 1967 at right, although there are a handful that we would just as happily add to our collection. The scan at right hardly does justice to the subtle tonal ranges in this picture that make it truly spectaular in person.

Rating: *** (three stars) EXCELLENT (rating system described here)

Through March 21

32 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022

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