Photography Basics

Emmet Gowin’s Insider’s View with Circular Formatting

Photographer Emmet Gowin (b. 1941) was one of the first photographers to bring to light the effectiveness of using a circular lens in large format photography (circular formatting). He understood that in life, the circle is a primary object that demands attention. The sun, the moon, the wheel and even the human eye are all circular, and the human eye sees everything through a perfectly round pupil and iris. Just as circular compositions are popular in art, Gowin often chose the circular lens in his photography to capture the entire image just as the eye sees it.

Portrait of emmet gowin


Until 1967 he used only a short Angulon lens that was built especially for small cameras. He began to mix his images by using his old Eastman View 8 x 10 along with the short Angulon lens. What transpired was that he developed an appreciation for the exaggerations that happened near the edges of the photo. With this setup, he shot and then trimmed these prints to disguise the circular aspect. At some point down the road, he came to the conclusion that this innovative lens setup he was using helped define the space and using a circular image would make it even more powerful. He began experimenting with the circular lens in 1970 and was able to transform everyday images into what you could call ritual, or romantic, photos. Whether it was the necklace gracing his wife’s neck or a small child’s costume, he succeeded in making them stand out either by bathing them in light or surrounding them with blackness. Once he accepted the concept and techniques of circular imagery, he was able to describe his world within this domain. He adapted this new world vision and changed the photographic landscape by becoming an expert with the circular lens. While it is not something that every photographer has experience with, using a circular lens made for a smaller camera and then projecting the image onto a larger format makes for a special composition that draws the viewer’s focus into the center of the image. He became known as the master of displaying a circular image with edges that fade away into sheer blackness.

Circular Format Photography — Circular formatting 

In Gowin’s work, the influence of his teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design, Harry Callahan, is ubiquitous in his earlier works. Like Callahan, many of Gowin’s early photographs focused on the family, the home and the body and held a self-contained attention to his immediate surroundings in Virginia. Both Callahan and Gowin regularly photographed their wives and Gowin even documented their ongoing relationship through his images of her. In subsequent photographs, Gowin included other members of his immediate family in his shots. His first monograph, Emmet Gowin Photographs, was innovative in its use of fine-focus with large format images that were specific to the subject. Some of his wide-angled prints gave an intimate “insider’s” point of view by placing the lens’s diameter inside the rectangular shaped negative space. This technique surrounded the image with a halo of blackness, which gave the image the appearance of looking at it through the eye of reality, or from inside the brain and gave an incredibly intimate feeling to it. Although Gowin became famous for his round images using a circular lens, he also used a slightly different technique that he called his “bubble” images, which allowed the viewer a glimpse of a world like as seen through a snow globe, or a sphere of water with a picture neatly positioned inside. In 1992 Gowin went to the Czech Republic, where he followed the advice of photographer Josef Koudelka, and studied the extensive mining operations. His aerial photos of that trip reveal a certain tension between the visual beauty of the environment with utter devastation, which he portrays as coexisting in the universe.

Emmet Gowin, Nancy, Twine and Cloth Construction, 1971, printed 1988
©Emmet and Edith Gowin, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.

Photographers Using Circular Lenses

Emmet Gowin influenced a generation of photographers, for many of his students also adapted the circular format. The American ex-pat, Scott Mead, for example, studied with Gowin when he taught at Harvard University. Although differing from Gowin in subject matter, who mainly photographed people and domestic scenes with the circular format, Scott Mead’s expertise was in photographing nature.

Scott Mead, Looking Back 1975

The same feeling of focus is present in Mead’s images but the intimacy is not due to the differing subject matter. Scott Mead is just one example among many fine art photographers who chose to employ Gowin’s circular technique in large format photography. What unite all of the images, regardless of the photographer, are the intense focus this technique provides and the feeling it gives of being drawn into its center.

About the Author

Peter Smith  is an ordinary guy as others, but with extraordinary passion for photography. He has written hundreds of quality articles for many high quality blogs. Also, he loves to swim, hike, run whenever and wherever he finds the time.




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