The work of Elijah Gowin spans the documentary tone of his Lonnie Holley series to the whimsical narratives of "Hymnal of Dreams" to the ethereal and timeless imagery of his "Of Falling & Floating" series.
Despite the diverse nature of his collections, Gowin manages to keep his mark. Themes transcend his work: isolation, fragility, and the integration of new and old media. With a willingness to broaden his work and intriguing new projects on the horizon, I was very grateful to Elijah for sparing the time to provide some insight into his work.
Elijah Gowin is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City where he directs photographic studies.
Would you say your work has progressed and/or changed since your work on projects like the Lonnie Holley or Hymnal of Dreams series?
Certainly much has changed in my methods of making a photograph from those earlier series made mostly in the 1990s. The new millennium brought many changes personally and globally and I saw it as an opportunity to reinvent how I made my art.
"I am much less internal as an artist these days..."
But hopefully people see a few links from the older to newer series. I continue to push the alternatives to straight photography and am still interested in ritual and the landscape.
A good deal of photography is negative space and in terms of your work, there is a good deal of negative space in terms of narrative with a lot of questions arising from what happened before or what will happen next. Would you say the unseen portion of the narrative has a greater or equal part to play in the meaning of your images?
Narrative drove the Hymnal series and I often found myself interested in what was in the background, hovering slightly out of focus. The setting—the spaces around objects and people—was an opportunity to charge a still image with many possible storylines. In the images where people are left out, there is still a heavy human presence like some character has just stepped out of the frame. And although I did like images that spoke about what might have happened before or after the moment portrayed in the picture, I was also leery of illustrating a story with a beginning, middle and end. I thought that left too little room for a viewer’s imagination and participation.
In the newer digital work, I think I use space and narrative in a different way. Overall, I am less concerned with narrative. I often like to use the background and setting as a way to develop a psychological space based on scale. By putting a small figure in a large sky or body of water, I think we feel more exposed and alone.
In your statement for the Watering series, you’ve stated that although “the digital revolution has empowered individuals by connecting them to the larger world, technology has at the same time made the individual more replaceable, replicatable and anxious about the future.” Are you speaking in terms of work and creation, or something more fundamental? And in what way do you feel anxious about the future?
I am thinking more fundamentally about how technology comes with a price. First, it has made us question our human value. We all hear about the outsourcing of jobs, downsizing due to automation and the global market, cloning and stem cell research. These events seem to question our uniqueness and foster instability and flux. Also, as technology has made the world smaller, the psychological weight of the world has become heavier.
Secondly, the promise that technology will allow us to control our lives and geography has not delivered. As I began to work on the Watering series, the tragedies that happened with flooding in New Orleans and with the tsunami in East Asia were reminders of our human frailty.
In regards to the Of Falling and Floating series, how did this project develop and what was the driving force behind the unusual process you used to create these images?
By 2001 or 2002 I was ready to totally reinvent the tools, process and materials for making my art. Conceptually, I was interested in developing a process for making photographs that embraced technology and the internet. But at the same time, I wanted to juxtapose this with more human marks and historical materials. I think it was the end of the millennium (which coincided with the end of my youth) that perhaps put me in the mood to question what values and sensibilities we take with us from one era to the next. And that’s where I came up with working with the scanner and paper negatives.
"It took awhile, however, to understand how the scanner could be used in a very personal, controlled way, much like an enlarger."
Many artists in the 1990’s were using historical processes like Cyanotype prints and using pinhole cameras to make paper negatives. I also had friends that were using paper negatives and using the enlarger to make larger, distorted images. So it had been on my mind for a long time.
As an art instructor, I had also seen the blurry, papery effect that occurs when students scan a picture using the wrong setting on the flatbed scanner. It took awhile, however, to understand how the scanner could be used in a very personal, controlled way, much like an enlarger. Even though I started using found, amateur snapshots for convenience, I found it to be an important gesture as it allowed me to tap into something awkwardly honest and human.
In the early seventies, there were a number of artists who put themselves in harms way creating photograph works featuring themselves or others falling such as Bas Jan Ader. Were you inspired by these works? And how would you differentiate your work from Of Falling and Floating from these?
I can’t say this artist or time period played a part in this series. But there are similarities to those works in having the body being the center of the tragic event. Also the thought that life is somehow beyond our control. My work is more lyrical and uses photography very differently.
Are you still in contact with Lonnie Holley? And would you ever consider revisiting him in your work?
Holley is a self-taught artist in Alabama and unfortunately I have been out of touch with him for awhile. I think about him every once in awhile and it would be great to have a show with him or do some collaborative project very different from my usual work. I think it would stretch me as an artist. At one point years ago, he suggested putting images on strings and hanging them on trees. I wasn’t ready for that at that point but now I think I can afford to do disparate projects if I want.
You’ve described your initial writing as “bad” and have referenced “good artwork” in your statements. What would you say are the qualities of “good artwork”? And would you say these qualities are unique to you or are they more universal?
I think the bad and good refer mostly to things I like or dislike, so it’s my own subjective taste. Interesting art is something that keeps my attention, questions what I know. But of course I sometimes like art that is comfort food for the eyes and not to be thought about too deeply.
What do you think about the way in which labels are applied in art such as “high brow”, “low brow”, “street art”, “fine art”, and “outsider art”? Do you feel labels serve any useful purpose? Or likewise, can they be detrimental?
I think the word “label” already suggests that categories like these are kinds of baby words and not very sophisticated. Perhaps just lazy. On one level this is true. But these terms certainly reveal the subtle differences in why art is made and then defined by an outside source. Each word suggests a different economic and social context. But such terms could best be used as a starting point for a discussion. In the end, however, a good discussion will show how useless the term really is as a surrogate for the complex modes of creativity and consumption of art.
What have you learned while teaching? And what would you say is the most common mistake you see among the students you see?
I have learned that I love teaching in the University, but I’m not a natural academic.
I think the mistake that I most often see with the students I have now is that they are too careful and afraid to make mistakes. For the most part they have to be pushed further rather than reigned in.
Based on your own development, what advice would you give to parents who are striving to nurture their children’s artistic expression and why?
I would say take it easy. I think it is best when children are allowed to stumble upon their own skills and interests. I don’t think engineering creativity works.
Would you choose a colour (it doesn’t have to be a favourite) and explain the ideas and feelings it generates for you? This doesn’t need to be a straight answer – express yourself in any way you feel is suitable from an explanation to a haiku or image
Pink used to be the color for boys, the watered down red of blood. Now I trip over pink ponies getting to the bathroom at night. The quietness of the house and the rise and fall of breathing are enough to tend to my wounds.
What was the last thing to surprise you and what did you learn from the experience?
Sleeping until 1pm and missing an event at PhotoEspaña during a recent trip to Spain really surprised me. It was somewhat jetlag induced but it was good to have the body tell you what it needs and trump our rapid travel technology.
What projects are you currently working on? And are there any other disciplines which you would like to try in future outside photography?
I have a few side projects that I would like to do as a change of pace from recent series. One involves something like teaching kudzu to talk. More theoretically, it is about trying to see if the patterns of growing vines can be translated into language.
As for engaging other disciplines, photography has been so flexible and accommodating, I have been able to engage my interests in many areas and still stay within the still image. I am trying just to keep up with the speed of photographic evolution, but I have always thought that I would suddenly wake up one morning and start drawing or something.
Thank you, Elijah.
Robert Mann gallery
Saatchi Gallery magazine
Lonnie Holley wiki