As a fan of Polaroids and a former art history major, it may seem like a stretch that Elijah Gowin would go on to win a Guggenheim Fellowship for photography. Yet that's how things have turned out for the young assistant professor of Photographic Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Over the past decade, Gowin began experimenting with mixing electronic and traditional photographic media to create a new style of art. One such example from his series entitled “On Falling And Floating” features composite images of people falling through the air and floating in water. To create this series, he relied on his well cultivated photographic instincts and the unlimited possibilities of the Internet.
After moving from Virginia to Missouri in 2001, Gowin found himself longing for his familiar subjects and scenery. Unable to physically transport himself back to Virginia, he found that he could travel there virtually using the Internet. “I moved away from the dark room, chemical, black-and-white process to the light room with scanners and digital tools,” he explains. Using photographic hosting websites such as Flickr, Gowin found materials contributed by amateur photographers and began to use them as sketches for his own work. They would eventually serve as the background for his “On Falling and Floating” series.
To acquire images of people flying through the air or floating in water, Gowin got creative. “I borrowed a trampoline and put it in my backyard. Some were wearing breezy clothes, some hats, so that it would be more interesting to pair them up with different backgrounds,” he said. “The floating thing with the water - I’ll be going to Mexico to see the cliff-jumpers, to see how they jump off into the air, examining their ability to test the landscape and to trust to fall into the water.” These types of scenes, Gowin says, just are not possible in Missouri.
Combining perspectives and subject matter from these photographers and from his own work, he pieces together montages that portray people falling or floating through the air in a whimsical, carefree sort of way. So while Gowin is a photographer at heart, he has begun to expand beyond conventional boundaries. “In some ways, I’m not a documentarian or referencing the world how it looks. I’m more like a painter picking and choosing things to put together in a final composition,” he notes.
This series is just one example of how Gowin has started down his own unique path of art photography. “I’ve always been interested in doing something photographically and artistically that hasn’t been done before…. I’ve always been more interested in metaphor and using artistic license with the photographs,” he observes. While he is constantly seeking to try new things and to think outside of the box, one aspect of his art is entirely traditional - the artist’s control over the work. “I control where the picture comes from, what it looks like, how I create a composite and print,” he emphasizes.
One of the more striking aspects of Gowin’s artwork is the way he employs color. “I use a very heightened kind of super real color, color of dreams, or even colors that were around in the 1970s in Super 8 films or Polaroids,” he says. “It’s more of the internal fantasized color, of the internal mind, rather than accurate color.” All this is done for a purpose, he explains: “Just as the world changes, how you present that world has to change as well.”
Gowin’s first series, entitled “Hymnal of Dreams,” took him ten years to complete. Reflecting his strong Virginian roots, these pictures focus on the landscape and history that is the South, particularly the iconic religious ritual of the south: baptism. “I wanted to look at that and see what kind of landscape I could build within that potentially dangerous but wonderfully religious and positive thing,” he explains. Water was a powerful symbol at that time, due to the tsunami in Southeast Asia and Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. South, and their reminder of our lack of control over the world. As he puts it, "whether it is our faith and doubt in technology, or faith and doubt in religion or landscape - how much control we as humans actually have - that has been a consistent idea in my work."
Another of his series is named “Lonnie Holley.” It emerges from his "interest in folk art or artists who have never been to school, who just take the materials that are around them to make artwork.” According to Gowin, the South has its share of characters who create art out of their own environment: “Holley’s backyard was a whole acre of art, 10,000 pieces of art and the trees, and the sidewalks, and anything that he could make into art, he did." For three years, Gowin visited him to talk about and better to understand his unusual compositions. “In the end, the airport that he lived by was looking to extend their runway," Gowin notes, "and his land would be taken away. I knew the end result of that story, and so I documented that to give him honor for something that he had spent ten years building up.”
Receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008 came as “a bit of a surprise” to Gowin. “Traditionally, the Guggenheim awards have gone to people who were more 'straight photographers,' who were more traditional in their technique and in history,” he explains. Worried that his experimental work would not fit into the photography category, Gowin considered applying under the art category; however, he eventually decided to go with photography. “I guess it’s a good signal that people are open to new ways that photography can be used,” he points out. Supported by the Guggenheim funding, Gowin will work to finish up the “Of Falling and Floating” series, including traveling to Mexico to take more photographs.