Emmet Gowin – The One Hundred Circle Farm

Review by Douglas Stockdale •

Who has not flown over America’s Great Plains witnessing the immense circular patterns created by the farmers and wondered if these were the inspiration for the abstract artists of the Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s and the Color Field paintings of the 1960s? For me, these aerial perspectives recall the abstract patterning of the likes of Richard Diebenkorn and more specifically that of the circular Color Field paintings of Kenneth Noland.

Center-pivot irrigation is a farming process in regions where water in short supply as an irrigation technique utilizing massive equipment that circulates about a central axis, usually a deep water well. This farming process was developed for regions where the water supply is limited as well as being a methodology that is more efficient and less labor-intensive. Water from the deep well provides the irrigation of the farm land while the pressure of the water concurrently moves the large irrigation equipment on its circular route.

What we witness in these photographs is a very temporal effect, a moment in time during the farming cycle and that in a matter of months, this landscape could morph into a different pattern of lines, shapes and colors. I find that aspect of this project fascinating. That said, the defining outline might not change as much as the interior textures, such as the second image below in which the precise circular lines of harvested wheat have been disrupted by the winds of a thunderstorm.

The shape of the resulting patterns, usually circular, but are also inclusive of uneven edges and irregular masses within the larger circular pattern created by creeks, as well as the faming equipment that is used to subsequently harvest the crop. These irrigation patterns run the gamut of precise circular shapes that implies a flat and even underlying terrain to those which are very irregular, bordering on abstract patterns, resulting from an irregular farmland.

From a high attitude the broader vision of this landscape hints at the ensuing details of these graphic irrigation patterns, individually as well as in the context of groups of these circular fields. His photographs invite the reader to compare and contrast these organic shapes, as one might look upon a matrix of Bernd and Hilla Becher industrial landscapes. Not as evident is the scale of these immense structures until you drill down into the photograph and detect the massive farming equipment that appears diminutive in size.

This is an eight-year landscape project that Gowin completed in the 1980’s, so why publish this body of work now? I believe that Lucas Bessire’s Afterword provides ample clues; perhaps it is not a matter of what is seen as much what is not seen.  The crop-circles are part and parcel to the agribusiness of center-pivot irrigation farming’s repeated use of chemicals, the depletion of the natural elements in the soil, the continuing detrimental effects on the ancient Ogallala Aquifer that the deep wells tap into as its water source. The underlying trade-off of big agribusiness and the on-going safety of our ecology in the face of global warming and the damaging exposure to the health of surrounding communities by the various chemicals that are utilized to make a huge profit. Essentially these become symbols that represent a profit for a few at someone else’s expense.

The book is wonderfully printed on an eggshell tinted paper, providing a soft warmth to the many images and heightens the effects of the warmer toned images that Gowin has created, varying from a neutral grayscale to a very warm tint. It is not readily apparent to me for the rationale behind the toning of particular photographs, while this visual effect does help to maintain interest in the sequence of photographs.

I find the photographs ethereal and surreal, and I may have to return to my own photographs of a similar landscape created from 30,000 feet.


Emmet Gowin has been previously featured on PhotoBook Journal: Emmet Gowin – Photographs


Douglas Stockdale is a visual artist and the Senior Editor & founder of PhotoBook Journal.


The One Hundred Circle Farm, Emmet Gowin

Photographer: Emmet Gowin, born Danville, VA and resides in Pennsylvania.

Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, copyright 2022

Essays: Emmet Gowin, Lucas Bessire

Text: English

Book: Hardcover with illustrated dust jacket, print and bound by Meridian Printing, East Greenwich, Rhode Island, ISBN 978-0-691-23541-7

Photobook Designer: Katy Homans


Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s). All images, texts, and designs are copyright of the authors and publishers.

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