Visual Arts

Don McGowan: Mindful Photographic Seeing

By Frances Figart

It can be argued that Don McGowan is equal parts photographer and teacher. Most of his professional time is spent teaching photography and photographic creativity—including one-on-one coaching and guiding—in workshops around the country.

“Probably 90 percent of my work is in nature and travel imagery, with emphasis on the Southern Appalachians,” he says. “If I have a special expertise in any particular area it would have to be in what is best referred to as wide-angle landscapes.” He has recently completed a book on that subject and is currently in search of a publisher.

Growing up in the piedmont hills of Georgia where his grandparents were farmers, McGowan spent many a day roaming the fields and forests, wetlands and watersheds. Though he was an excellent student and might have settled on a career in law, so loud was the call of the outdoors that he eventually combined his academic leanings with a strong environmental ethic to create a philosophy of teaching he calls ‘mindful photographic seeing.’

“I teach students to ‘see’ like various lenses see the world,” he says. “You see a beautiful world, but only if you work to keep it that way; you see beauty in the objects and people of the world, but only if you create and act in such a way as to maintain the beautiful.”

Tari Federer has been McGowan’s student for the past three years, traveling from the Appalachians to New Mexico, the Colorado Plateau, Palo Duro Canyon and the Bisti Wilderness to take courses as part of his EarthSong Photography education business. “Don is a great educator with an incredible eye for beauty,” she says. “Under his direction I have learned to use mindful photographic seeing, by being present in my surroundings first, then shooting that which drew me to the particular spot.”

Another student, Warren Bedell, has studied with McGowan and EarthSong since 2006, taking workshops in locations from Savannah, Georgia to Acadia National Park in Maine to the national parks in southern Utah. “All have been excellent adventures,” says Bedell. “Don is a great photographer as well as being a generous, sensitive and well-informed teacher. Our conversations, in the field or in the classroom, are always enlightening.”

McGowan finds immeasurable joy in teaching. “I think more than anything I am inspired by the people who come to me as students, who come to participate in a workshop or take a class,” he says. “There are as many ways of photographing the beauty of the world as there are people to visualize it, and they never cease to amaze me with the ways in which they see what stands in front of them.”

One of the EarthSong Photography students he met about a decade ago is now his life partner. Bonnie Cooper, also an accomplished photographer in WNC, shares a home office with McGowan in North Asheville two miles below Craven Gap and the Blue Ridge Parkway. This is where both artists do much of the post-processing part of their work. But McGowan has christened his 2017 white Subaru Outback his “studio,” seeing the entire world outside of home as his creative space.

“What I feel primarily when I am photographing is a dual awareness: how very privileged I am to be doing the thing that I love more than any other activity I can imagine, while at the same time I feel a particular connection, you might even say a oneness, with whatever I am seeing within my viewfinder—especially if it involves the natural world. Even if the scene involves sordidness or pathos, I typically feel an overwhelming unity with the scene itself, as if it were saying to me, ‘I am just another part of all that is—the good, the bad, the disagreeable—if you would change me, change yourself.’”

Courses themed around wildflowers, waterfalls, barns and fall color are offered throughout the year and a new series of mindful photographic seeing workshops will be launched in May. These adventures, as McGowan prefers to call them, will focus on “the connection between mindful awareness and the creation of photographic images that convey meaning and emotion, as well as reveal the everyday beauty that surrounds us.”

It is obvious from talking to McGowan’s students that he leaves a very deep impression on those who seek knowledge under his direction. He says that if he is to be remembered for anything, he would like to be thought of as a person who loves the land. “I think we humans tend to overlook and even forget our connections—literal and figurative—to the land, and we have done so and do so at our extreme peril. In my teaching photography and the creative process, I strive to teach the connections with the natural world that will lead to the bonds with it that will join a desire to create beauty and a desire to preserve what we have of the natural beauty that surrounds us.”

Upcoming courses with Don McGowan and
Earthsong Photography

March 30–April 2: Beauty of Appalachian Barns workshop in conjunction with the Appalachian Barn Alliance in Madison County
April 5–9: Wildflowers, Waterfalls, and Western North Carolina workshop in Transylvania County and on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Learn more at earthsongphotography.com, by following EarthSong Photography on Facebook or by calling 828.788.0687. 

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