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Father-and-son photographers reimagine the elements

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  February 7, 2009 06:02 PM

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Pull of Gravity
Photo by Elijah Gowin

Emmet and Elijah Gowin make the unreal out of earth, air, and water

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff

WINCHESTER - Emmet Gowin and Elijah Gowin are father and son. Although they don't collaborate, they've previously exhibited together. "Pull of Gravity: Photographs by Emmet Gowin and Elijah Gowin" shows what a complementary pairing their work makes for. It runs at the Griffin Museum of Photography through March 29.

There are 34 black-and-white aerial landscapes from Emmet Gowin - emphasis on "land." There's little vegetation or sign of human settlement. What's underfoot - dense, solid, unyielding - is what matters. Most of the pictures are from the desert Southwest, though others range as far as the Czech Republic. They show desolate terrain: weapons testing grounds, mines, toxic-waste sites.

What we see isn't so much nature violated as nature reimagined: blasted, brusque, denuded. The only thing beautiful about these pictures is the occasional descriptive phrase in a title: "Fault Line Experiment," "Common Ground Zero," "Subsidence Craters," "Troop Placement Trenches."

Subsidence Craters
"Subsidence Craters, Looking East from Area 8, Nevada Test Site"
Photo by Emmet Gowin

The images may not be beautiful, but they are stunning. They're also smallish, 15 1/2-by-18 or 21-by-24. Initially, one wants them bigger, if only to see more detail. Then comes the realization that these pictures, on a larger scale, would be terrifying as well as visually overwhelming. They're terrestrial moonscapes, an Ansel Adams nightmare, less a land time forgot than a land time wanted to forget.

The land's natural strangeness - call it distinctiveness, if you prefer - has been heightened by man, courtesy of nuclear blasts or pivot agriculture or even fairways and sand traps. (Seen from above, the biomorphic shapes in "Golf Course Under Construction, Arizona" look like a weird hybrid of Matta's and Adolph Gottlieb's painting styles.) Sometimes it can seem as though nature has done the heightening. The hillside markings in "Erosion in the Side of a Silver Ore Tailing Near Bayard Grant County, New Mexico" resemble massive petroglyphs.

Where his father presents unreal-looking landscapes, Elijah Gowin offers unreal-looking dreamscapes of air and water. He brings together images taken from the Internet with his own photographs, and makes multilayer collages, which he then prints as paper negatives, and scans. It's an elaborate process, but the results are beguilingly simple.

His 16 pictures show individuals falling through the air or floating in water. "I often like to use the background and setting as a way to develop a psychological space based on scale," he says. "By putting a small figure in a large sky or body of water, I think we feel more exposed and alone."

Falling in Trees 12
"Falling in Trees 12" / Photo by Elijah Gowin

Words like "exposed" and "alone" suggest anxiety and dislocation. Yet it's just as easy to read buoyancy, even jubilation in these images. Suspending gravity is not the same thing as wanting to escape it. The pictures' blurriness and unnatural, Sno-cone colors can be seen either way, too. Many of the photographs are quite big, which soaks up the assertiveness of the color and makes it seem playful rather than lurid.

The nine photographs in "Arthur Griffin: Swimming and Diving" nicely chime with Elijah Gowin's. Black-and-white shots of divers and swimmers, they come from the archive of the Griffin Museum's photojournalist founder. Visually, they're very different from Gowin's; but the in-the-air affinity is plain.

Elaine Duigenan's "Net" consists of 14 digital photograms of hairnets. They look like impossibly precise drawings or etchings of furry, otherworldly things. Their appearance is rather off-putting, actually. Their titles are a bit much, too: "Foetal Attraction," "Atonement," "Adam's Rib," "Wings of Desire." Duigenan would appear to have seen too many movies.

An awful lot of cant gets spoken about "the healing powers of art." Usually it's heard from artists or curators when they're seeking grant money. (The cant about artistic self-expression comes after they get the grant.) In its modest way, "Arthur Griffin: A Singular Vision," which inaugurates the Griffin's Aberjona River Gallery satellite space, offers the prospect of some actual healing.

A few minutes' drive from the museum, the gallery is located in the basement of the Aberjona Nursing Center, a rehabilitation and long-term-care facility. It's a bit disconcerting to have to go past many elderly and infirm people to look at photographs.

Yet not a few of those same people were young when Griffin took the pictures, in the 1940s. One can imagine the restorative effect of seeing these images from their youth: Cardinal Richard Cushing behind a fence of news photographers; Buster Keaton (!) crowning Miss South Boston with a garland of flowers; Scollay Square strippers in their dressing room.

South Station
"South Station" / Photo by Arthur Griffin

And the appeal transcends mere nostalgia. An atmospheric shot of trains at South Station recalls Josef Sudek.

The pull of the past is no less strong than that of gravity.

Mark Feeney can be reached at


PULL OF GRAVITY: Photographs by Emmet Gowin and Elijah Gowin
ARTHUR GRIFFIN: Swimming and Diving
NET: Photographs by Elaine Duigenan

Through March 29
Griffin Museum of Photography
67 Shore Road, Winchester

ARTHUR GRIFFIN: A Singular Vision
Through March 29
Aberjona River Gallery
184 Swanton St., Winchester

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