It was this level of connectedness and generosity, of ideas leading to people leading to places and more ideas, that permitted me to move forward in the arts.    

shepp-fullI’m an improbable artist, at least from the standpoint of my Princeton career. I spent my first two years studying to become an aerospace engineer. I loved the idea of a field connected to outer space. It sustained me through courses with funny names, like “fluids” and “solids.”   

During those same two years I was also studying photography. It seems strange now to think of how lucky I was to be at Princeton studying this topic. Though there were many other universities with fine engineering schools that I might have attended, there was only one, to my knowledge, that had anyone like Emmet Gowin.   

Emmet taught photography, but it was much more than that. He told us about William Blake and Paracelsus, and Hercules Seghers. He shared with us the world of ideas as told through images. Though photography was always the center of this discussion, it was by no means the only voice to be heard. Emmet shared himself and his artistic practice with great generosity and he did so in the style of the southern storyteller (of which he is one). If Blake was on Emmet’s mind as he worked in his studio, he brought those ideas into the classroom.   

So I left engineering and plunged into art. There were intimate lectures with great artists like Helen Levitt, Bruce Davidson, and Aaron Siskind (who reminded me of an old cab driver). You never knew who might stop by class and share a portfolio.   

All of this activity took place in the least likely of spots, an old elementary school on the edge of campus, known by its street number—185. Each one of the arts piled into old classrooms and service areas. Photography found its home in one of those service areas in the basement close by the furnace and far from any light. We shared this level with Toshiko Takaezu, a renowned ceramicist, and her students. One of my regrets is not having taken a class with her. I heard tales of the raku firings she constructed amongst the leaves outside in the fall.   

And the education did not stop once you graduated. Emmet understood the importance of community within the arts. He made sure that all of his students past and present got to know each other. And so my classmate, David Maisel, and I met Laura McPhee and Fazal Sheikh. There was also Andrew Moore, who showed up at an evening event in New York with Nan Goldin. She told us about a slide show she was doing in Hoboken. And so the next week I went to Maxwell’s and saw The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.   

It was this level of connectedness and generosity, of ideas leading to people leading to places and more ideas, that permitted me to move forward in the arts.  

Credits

This article was originally published in 2015 by the Princeton University Office of Development Communications. It has been reprinted and adapted for the web with permission.

Photography by Kah Leong Poon