JTF (just the facts): A total of 29 black-and-white photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against light grey walls in a series of gallery spaces on the third floor. All of the works are pigment prints, made between 1987 and 1995. The prints are sized either roughly 15×15 or 10×10 inches, and are available in editions of 7. (Installation shots below.)
A monograph of this body of work has recently been published by the Princeton University Press (here). Hardcover (9.75×12 inches), 128 pages, with 107 reproductions. Includes an introduction by the artist and an afterword by Lucas Bessire. (Cover shot below.)
Comments/Context: In the past several years, Pace and Princeton University Press have been methodically working their way back through some of Emmet Gowin’s aerial photography efforts from the 1980s and 1990s, providing fuller investigations of bodies of work that had been largely overlooked or under appreciated. Selected images from these projects had been included in Changing the Earth, a 2002 survey of Gowin’s aerial landscapes, and seen again in his 2013 retrospective at the Fundación MAPFRE, but neither of these shows was the right place for the kind of single subject deep dive study of these environmentally-conscious projects that is now being done. Pairing elegant gallery shows with lushly produced monographs, the joint effort first took shape in 2019 with a survey of Gowin’s mid-1990s images of the cratered desert wastelands found at nuclear test sites in Nevada (reviewed here).
This current show and photobook combination represents a follow up to that project, turning back roughly a decade to Gowin’s late 1980s and early 1990s interest in the center-pivot irrigation systems found across America’s agricultural lands. Center-pivot irrigation essentially works just as its name implies – a well is drilled in the center of a parcel of land, and equipment rotates around the center, sprinkling water over the crops placed underneath. This results in a clear circular form, often with regular concentric lines made where the wheels that carry the sprinkler systems interrupt the growing area. On foot, it’s difficult to see the regularity of these circles, but from the air, the crisp geometric forms and patterns reveal themselves, especially when this kind of irrigation is employed on otherwise dry land.
In a larger sense, water use has always been a critical component of agricultural decision making – particularly in the American West where water has generally been scarce – and as the decades have passed, climate change has undeniably exacerbated these issues, giving Gowin’s photographs a newly potent sense of relevance. Persistent drought conditions now prevail across many once productive areas for agriculture, and local aquifers have often been depleted to service crops in otherwise dry zones, leading to increasingly urgent questions now being raised about the past, present, and future of responsible water management. Gowin’s refined photographs highlight these issues, documenting the lasting legacies of these choices.
Gowin spent roughly eight years making aerial images of these circular forms, flying high above agricultural areas in Kansas, Colorado, Idaho, and Washington state. And even when we know the underlying process that has created these patterns, the markings he has photographed are still mysterious, almost like ancient communications or massive Earth art installations. As seen in this gallery show, the precise editing and sequencing of Gowin’s exacting prints has amplified their rhythms and repetitions, creating another layer of deliberate curatorial ordering on top of what’s found in the pictures themselves. (For an additional photographic perspective on these kinds of pattern overlays, see Gerco de Ruijter’s 2019 photobook Grid Corrections, reviewed here.)
The show begins with a single wide view, seen from a higher vantage point than most of Gowin’s images, providing a sweeping vista of an entire valley covered by circles; its dark cloudy atmosphere sets an ominously moody tone, as the circles march into the distance like a pattern on a quilt or the regular perforations in a metal sheet. The next two groupings of images create a stutter step dance of circles – one two, then one two four – encouraging us to make visual connections, to a grooved vinyl record perhaps, or paired targets, or the four coiled burners on an electric stove. Then the geometries shift, to a circle cut into two semicircles, with its thin etched lines disrupted by a thunderstorm, almost like the jittering lines on a seismograph.
This kind of visual motif discovery continues around the walls the gallery. First come two full circle images that are scratched by back and forth plowing, creating squiggling trails like insects make in wood. These are followed by a set of four, mostly made in winter when the white/black contrast was even more stark, and punctuated by various unexpected shapes (a dark dot from a small pond, doubled arcs from overlapped circles, and wavy areas from stubble.) Then comes a set of three more circles, each carved into sectors, like wedges or pieces of pie.
The next two sets of three play with darkness and contrast more overtly. After a stoplight formation of light, dark, and middle grey circles, two additional images follow carpets of dark circles, one with large and small circles intermingled to maximize usable space. The next triplet places light circles, followed by dark circles, followed by invisible circles that look like indentations in the otherwise rectilinear grid, into sequence, with the viewing plane becoming increasingly flat.
The last groupings of Gowin’s circles explore how the realities of the land always win out in the end. Rivers and streams poke their fractal fingers into the circles, carving deep scars into the crisp geometries; one dark circle seems to echo the Japanese technique of kintsugi, with a neat crack cut into a black disc. In other areas, ponds and potholes dot the land, interrupting the geometries in ways that Adolph Gottlieb would have admired. And in one last case, a circular plot is tightly nestled in between dusty hills and mountains, its form so very obviously out of place amid the undulations of the land.
At one point in our history, we might have viewed these photographs with a sense of impressed Modernist satisfaction at the ingenuity of man – out of the desert, we have crafted industrial scale agriculture to feed millions. But as the years pass, and the visible and invisible consequences of these less-than-entirely-sustainable choices become more apparent (water depletion, increasingly fragile environmental conditions, and cultivated areas that return to desert), our active dominion over nature looks much less prudent. Gowin’s elegant photographs offer a visual mix of hubris and delusion, even under the best of intentions; while we might not like the comparisons to collapsed civilizations of the past, these circles offer an eerie echo to the overextended agriculture and environmental mismanagement of the Easter Islanders, the Anasazi, the Mayans, and others now lost to history.
As with Gowin’s nuclear test site pictures, the hope embedded in these images of agricultural circles is that we can collectively learn from our mistakes, and reach for better solutions. As photographs, the tonal and geometric beauty on view here is seductive, but the message is much more menacing, for those who might listen. In the end, are these circles like tombstones, or a wider graveyard of desperate futility? Only time will tell.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $8000 or $12000, based on size. Gowin’s work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with just a handful of prints coming up for sale in any given year. Recent prices for single images have ranged from roughly $1000 to $10000, with portfolios and multi-print sets reaching $40000.