American Master Photographers Paul Strand and Emmet Gowin in Dual Exhibition at St. Louis Art Museum

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

The black and white photographs by American photographers Paul Strand and Emmet Gowin capture something far beyond the worlds the photos depict. The powerful images are at once inviting and ominous. With Strand, a simple crack in a rock formation becomes a giant fissure and a grouping of driftwood looks more like bones from the sea. The viewer is drawn in, then rejected. Conversely, a picture of his wife Edith compells you to reach out.

The aptly named exhibit, “The Weight of Things: Photographs by Paul Strand and Emmet Gowin,” is currently on view at the St. Louis Art Museum, featuring 70 prints spanning a century of work by two American masters of portraiture, landscape and still-life. The exhibit runs through Feb. 16, 2014.

2. Nancy, Danville, Virginia

Nancy, Danville, Virginia
Paul Strand

This exhibition presents overviews of careers in which Strand (1890-1976) and Gowin (b. 1941) explored and ultimately succeeded in expanding the expressive possibilities of their work. Both photographers preferred rural settings to urban, focusing on landscapes—often ravaged by man or the elements—as well as structures or people in rural settings, though notably Strand took a series of photographs on New York’s Lower East Side using a fake lens so his subjects wouldn’t know their picture was being taken.

Both photographers also crafted their photos through specialized materials and elaborate processes in the darkroom. These processes contribute greatly to the overall mood and feeling of heaviness the images possess. The exhibition title refers to their mutual efforts to evoke the weight and forcefulness of the natural world in their dense prints.

Edith, Chincoteague, Virginia Emmet Gowin

Edith, Chincoteague, Virginia
Emmet Gowin

Strand’s photos—whether clusters of driftwood bones, cracked rock formations or pictures of his wife Rebecca—all have an unidentifiable dark and brooding quality, partially invoked by the literal darkness of the prints. His work is abstractionist, but also captures images that are strikingly raw and honest, such as “The Tailor’s Apprentice,” a compelling picture of a young man.

Gowen’s studies of the geometrical forms of landscapes are particularly adept at shattering expectations. “Subsidence Craters,” which looks East from Area 8-Nevada test site, at first appears as a moon landscape, but on closer examination the subsidence craters are realized, which are caused by underground explosions, usually nuclear. Or a grid of land plots seen from above, sliced through by the meandering Columbia river, at first appears tranquil, but the river is revealed to be full of radioactive waste, in a place that at one time must have been extraordinarily beautiful but is now laid waste.

3. Old Hanford City Site and the Columbia River, Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington Emmet Gowin

Old Hanford City Site and the Columbia River, Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington
Emmet Gowin

In sharp contrast, Gowen’s picture of Edith and Isaac, his wife holding his infant son, backs turned to the camera, just a portion of Edith’s jaw visible along with the back of the infant’s head, is so strikingly tender and stirring, this everyday moment frozen in time, that is seems to capture the totality of their lives.

When all is said and done, the weight of things is very heavy indeed.

Gowin will speak about his work in a public lecture at the museum’s Farrell Auditorium on Friday, Dec. 6 at 6:30 p.m. For more information about the lecture, visit slam.org.

“The Weight of Things: Photographs by Paul Strand and Emmet Gowin,” curated by Eric Lutz, associate curator of prints, drawings and photographs, is on view in galleries 234 and 235 now through Feb. 16, 2014. For more information visit the St. Louis Art Museum website.

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