GOWIN, FRIEDLANDER & CALLAHAN: “The Model Wife” (2001)

ASX Editors

June 29, 2011

Edith, Danville, Virginia, 1969

By Arthur Ollman, Excerpt from the book The Model Wife, Director of the Museum of Photographic Art

I. Emmet Gowin, (b. 1941)

Emmet Gowin is a contemplative man. Contemplation is a solitary activity. It requires stillness, time, and focus. He believes that the connections between things are not always apparent. He speaks slowly, deliberately, poetically. Gowin continually shows an interest in nuance, in subtle distinctions, in parsing and identifying states of the soul. The world, he posits, is what it seems to be but it is also so much more.

Emmet Gowin’s work is romantic, and his romanticism is inflected by contemporary fin cie siècle awareness of time; its conflation, its melt, the way it sticks to us. Old objects, old buildings, old people, old crafts, present their splendid decay to him; Italian gardens, rugged hill towns, ancient ruins, moldering farm yards, fallow fields; a fecund nature, past its time, fairly oozing in overripeness. All attract him with a deep evocation of the past.

In 1960, he met Edith Morris at a YMCA dance. “Our attraction to one another was an alchemy beyond my analysis,” says Gowin. They were married in 1964. He came of age photographically, making images of his wife’s family. “I realized that my own family — Edith’s family — was as miraculous as the most distant people in the world and they were at the same time, the most available to me, and perhaps available only to me…. I had not realized that art could be made by simply telling the story of your own life, of your own experience.” Edith is seen at the center of an orbiting constellation of cousins, uncles and aunts, nieces, nephews, and neighbors, in rural Virginia. The work is infused with innocence and affection for place, for his relatives, and a tentative insertion of the artist’s voice in dialogue with his heroes in the history of his medium. And one senses in his portrayal of Edith much of Stieglitz photographing O’Keeffe at Lake George. Edith Gowin seems aware, even so early in their efforts together, that she could stare soberly at the camera, as O’Keeffe did, with similar tight mouth and strong cheekbones, and equal seriousness toward the photographic enterprise.

Edith, Danville, Virginia, 1966

In 1963, he visited Robert Frank in New York who encouraged him to go to graduate school only if he cared to be a photography teacher, and if he did, to study with Harry Callahan at the Rhode Island School of Design. He enrolled at RISD because of what he now describes as Harry Callahan’s “poetry of feeling and intimacy — and the revelation of a secret and unrecognized dimension m the commonplace.” Callahan posited that one need look no further for the transcendent than one’s own environment. What subject, after all, does one know more intimately? It was a lesson that became central to Emmet Gowin’s vision.

Gowin has always credited his influences, and he is eloquent and highly expressive of his debt to Callahan. In December of 1994, he said his photographs of his spouse were “… made possible by Harry’s (Callahan) work with Eleanor.”

Emmet’s photographs of Edith identify her as playful and spontaneous. There is also open sexuality in the Edith pictures, which exude trust and tenderness. These are not pictures that could have been made by another who might have happened to be there. They result from the particular intimacy of the Gowins, in that place, at that time, in that light, and in response to their own attraction. She is treated with warmth but never candidly. No pictures are made in the passing instant; these are not sketches or quick notations. They are moments of still reflection. Edith may enhance a moment with a gesture, her posture, or an animated expression, but, for that, they are no less contemplative.

Many of the Edith photographs are quite revealing. Emmet related that “their picture making world was first a private world. Over time, however, what had been private was moved into the public domain. Edith was strong enough emotionally to stand outside the pictures. We realized that there was no way through the pictures, to her. Her own dignity, or even her privacy, was never available to the public.” Only the Gowins themselves had the key to a personal understanding of these photographs.

Throughout the course of these photographs of the 1970s and 80s, one senses increasing depth in Edith’s portrayal. Emmet seemed to demand greater insight and sensibility with each new addition to the portfolio. As Edith aged, she seemed no less natural in front of the camera, no less willing to be seen, no less loved by her husband. In recent years, Emmet has made fewer photographs of his wife. Though each year new ones emerge, he feels the pressure to not repeat himself. The successful Edith picture is increasingly elusive as he has continually raised the standard.

Maria Friedlander, Southwestern United States, 1969

II. Lee Friedlander (b. 1934)

Lisette Model said, “There is nothing so mysterious as a fact clearly presented.” Lee Friedlander’s photographs are both clear and mysterious. Their mystery lies not in identifying the subjects or in deciphering the techniques whereby they were made, but rather in recognizing the person who chose to make them. He is an elusive figure and a taciturn one. He is prolific. His art is pure, unmanipulated, straight seeing. He has never mixed media, rarely worked in color or large format, he has not philosophized obscurely, or even been usefully interviewed. His statements are disarmingly simple. He is not a theoretician.

Friedlander seems to have found himself when he came upon 35mm photography. This became the only outlet for his proclamations, the only mechanism of his interests and passions. Yet his practiced stance of neutrality masks his very human search for a vision. He can be maddeningly understated about his work: “I tend to photograph the things that get in front of my camera.” Friedlander’s art is famous for its obsessive, uninflected neutrality; a flat picture making style which emphasizes his curiosity and desire to be clear. His aestheticising is of an astringent sort. There is no nostalgia, only present-tense description. “I always have a mistrust of subjects that look perfect,” he says. He has no interest in the symbolic or the metaphoric. He is a specifist. He prefers the time in between the decisive moments, the ungainly, accidental, casual, unmemorable instant; that which is far more common and real in all our lives.

Lee Friedlander is not a romantic. He is incompatible with sentimentality in art. It is interesting then, to look at his photographs of his wife Maria. He has photographed her for 40 years. Is this work free of nostalgia and romanticism, is it all just visual curiosity?

Friedlander was born in 1934 in Aberdeen, Washington. His mother died when he was seven. His father felt unable to raise him and sent him to live with a farmer about 110 miles south of Seattle, where he grew up. He met Maria de Paoli in 1957. He was twenty-three, she twenty-four. She was a child of an Italian neighborhood in New York, surrounded by the tumult of family and community. Working at Sports Illustrated as an editorial assistant, she ran into the young Lee Friedlander who was trying to get assignments at the magazine.


Minneapolis (Shadow Self-Portrait on Maria), 1966

The photographs of Maria are notably free of some of Friedlander’s most typical attitudes. The images usually feature Maria as the dominant figure of a relatively simple scene. The frames tend not to be cluttered. They are intimate, participatory views. Lee Friedlander is cool, even diffident, but his warmth is showing at the center of his life.

Maria is seen calmly, dignified, alert, and gently admired. She often shows eye contact — she was given an instant to compose herself — in essence to create her own self-portrait. She is seen as a daughter, a cousin, a wife, a mother, a reader, a homemaker, a regular and companionable traveling partner. While rarely presented sexually, it is clear she is loved. The images are often sensual, and tactile references abound. In one, her daughter brushes her hair. In another, Maria sleeps in the sun, shadows gently brushing her cheek in a cafe. Friedlander’s art identifies a solid, trusting family structure. His selection of daily observation reaches high poetry.

Friedlander’s pictures of Maria show that even in his uninflected way of picture making, with its trope of neutrality and curiosity, that love and dependence are absolutely unlike other emotions. Love looks different than simple curiosity. Tenderness and respect, no matter how alloyed with other complex emotions, are inconsistent with neutrality. The photographs of Maria Friedlander illustrate affection that is both apparent and considerable. She has been shown to be an attractive, intense, intelligent, and loved partner. No other person appears as often in his work and no other personality is as fully described. For more than forty years, the Friedlanders continue to produce this extraordinary group of images, so long as Maria continues to “get in front of” his camera.

Eleanor, Chicago, 1949

III. Harry Callahan (1912-1999)

Harry Callahan was a complex man who seemed to be a simple man. His apparent simplicity was engendered by reticence and frail verbal skills. He explained himself plainly: “In my life, being married was one powerful experience, photography by itself was a powerful experience, coming to Chicago to teach was a great experience, having a daughter was another experience, as well as living in Europe. I think these have all been very strong influences in my growing as a photographer.”

No doubt, these were the forces that shaped Harry Callahan’s life and art, yet a close study of his work reveals that he also absorbed artistic insights from the important figures he encountered along the way, and, as much as any photographer ever did, Callahan learned from his own experimentation. Modernist experimentation with materials and equipment are central to his art. That Callahan applied this formal inquiry to an exploration of his private and vulnerable inner life made him nearly unique.

Harry met Eleanor on a blind date in 1933. Three years later they were married. In 1938, he began photographing, and joined a camera club for camaraderie and to broaden his understanding of the medium. In 1942, the Callahans visited New York, saw the museums, and met Alfred Stieglitz before returning to Detroit. In 1946, Callahan was hired by László Moholy-Nagy to teach in Chicago at the Institute of Design, founded in 1939 and known as the New Bauhaus. There he became acquainted with Aaron Siskind, Waiter Gropius, Herbert Bayer, Mies van der Rohe, Hugo Weber, and soon after, Edward Steichen.

Eleanor and Barbara, Chicago, 1954

Callahan’s work was a deeply personal response to his own life. He was well known to encourage his students to turn their cameras on their lives, and he led by example. Even as he did this he was not sentimental, romantic, or emotional. Harry illustrated the centrality of Eleanor in his life by his continual return to her over fifteen years as his prime subject — she is subject more than model — but the images are not about who she is, what she does, what she thinks as an individual. Harry Callahan’s art is a long meditation on the possibilities of photography as it might be used playfully, but not naively.

Eleanor was essential to his art from 1947 to 1960. Harry photographed her everywhere — at home, in the city streets, in the landscape; alone, with their daughter, in black and white and in color, nude and clothed, distant and close. He tried every technical experiment — double and triple exposure, blurs, large camera and small. The attitude of respect and warmth permeates the endeavor.

In 1950, their daughter Barbara was born, and even prior to her birth she showed up in pregnancy photographs. From 1948 to 1953, Eleanor, and sometimes Barbara, are shown out in the landscape as a tiny counterpoint to large expanses of park, skyline, or water. No matter how small a part of the scene they are, they still dominate our perception.

The Callahans found a way to nourish and sustain a mutual balance of sharing and productivity. Eleanor remembers, “It was part of our daily life for 25 years…. He took pictures wherever we happened to be. I might be cooking dinner, and Harry would say, Eleanor, the light is just beautiful right now. Come on, I’d like to take a picture of you,’ and we’d go and make a photograph.”

Harry and Eleanor, and for a few years, Barbara, were remarkably prolific, producing hundreds of images and thousands of variants, working day after day. Callahan’s life was experimentation and investigation. Those efforts were not “about” his life. They were his life.

While in purely formal terms the model might have been any other woman, in fact the partnership and momentum of their lives together freed Harry to invent spontaneously and rhythmically with a discipline that would have been unavailable to an artist needing to arrange for a hired model. It is also true that seeing his wife in daily changes of light and mood inspired numerous interpretations.

His prime interest, when photographing anything, even his wife, is photography. His passion was to push its ideas around, test it, map its potential boundaries, and play with it. Callahan’s formal experiments were conducted with the people who were the trusted center of his universe. The photographs were marinated in meaning. When his family appeared as a tiny counterpoint to a huge landscape or city view, one senses that the one small percent of the image that is Eleanor and Barbara was simply the center of his life.


ASX CHANNEL: Emmet Gowin

ASX CHANNEL: Lee Friedlander

ASX CHANNEL: Harry Callahan

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