Emmet Gowin was born in 1941 in Danville (Virginia). His father was a Methodist minister and his mother came from a Quaker family. At sixteen years old, impressed by a photograph by Ansel Adams, he borrowed his father’s camera in order to start to take photographs. In 1961 he attended the Richmond Professional Institute and become interested in humanist photography and abstract painting; this is where he met his future wife, Edith Morris, whom he married in 1964. During his first trip to New York he met Robert Frank, who recommended that he continued his studies under Harry Callahan at the Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence. In 1965 he put together his first book, dedicated to African American churches.
During his vacation time in Danville his interest for family photography is born, with a particular emphasis on Edith’s family. In 1967 he starts teaching classes at the Dayton Art Institute, thereby commencing a teaching practice that he would carry out for over four decades. This is where his first individual exhibition takes place and where he has a crucial encounter with the poet, artist and photographer Frederick Sommer. After a number of exhibitions and growing public interest in his work, in 1971 the MoMA in New York presents an exhibition juxtaposing Emmet Gowin’s photography with that of Robert Adams.
In the 1970s his interest in the landscape surrounding several generations of his wife Edith’s family grows and he becomes a teacher at Princeton University from 1973 and keeps this position until his retirement in 2009. Among the several generations of photographers that would pass through his studio classes were Andrew Moore, Laura McPhee, David Maisel and Fazal Sheikh. In 1976 he publishes his first monographic, Emmet Gowin: Photographs, which marks the first step in the international recognition of his work, while he also holds conferences and workshops in institutions such as the MoMA, Yale University, M.I.T. and Duke University.
In 1980 he visits Mount St. Helens, a volcano that had begun to erupt in May of that same year. This is where his interest in aerial photography begins and continues with his photographs of the Hanford nuclear site in Washington State and other North American landscapes devastated by erosion or by man; images that he will present years later under the title Photographs: Landscape in the Nuclear Age and Emmet Gowin: Aerial Photographs. In 1990 the retrospective exhibition entitled Emmet Gowin / Photographs: This Vegetable Earth Is But a Shadow is unveiled at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Outside of the United States he has photographed the city of Matera in Southern Italy, carved out of the rock; the Petra archeological site in Jordan; the Cappadocian region in Turkey; the volcanoes in Japan and several parts of the Czech Republic, Israel and Kuwait.
In 2001 he presents Close to Life: Photographs of Edith at the Pace/MacGill gallery in New York, demonstrating his continued interest in intimate photography. The following year, the Changing the Earth exhibition gathers together a select compilation of his photography which is displayed in several North American institutions, while the art school of the Nihon University in Tokyo dedicates a retrospective to him that covers his work from 1967. In 2006, Pace/MacGill unveils the exhibition and publishes the catalog for Mariposas nocturnas: Edith in Panama, a series which once again reflects his interest in intimate photography, while Princeton University grants him the Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities. In 2009 he retires from his post at Princeton after thirty-six years devoted to teaching. A few years later he produces new aerial photographs of rural settings in the province of Granada (Spain) which were placed on view for the first time in a retrospective which Fundación Mapfre dedicated to him in 2013. Emmet Gowin currently lives with his wife in Newtown (Pennsylvania) and continues to work as a photographer, speaker and professor emeritus at Princeton.