Eileen Cowin

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Eileen Cowin
Nationality American
Education State University of New York New Paltz; IIT Institute of Design
Known for Photography, Video, Performance
Website http://eileencowin.com

Eileen Cowin (born 1947) is an American photographer and video artist known for employing the tools of mass media (billboards, film stills, pictorials, photo-text, advertising) to produce images that provoke reflection, while conveying ideas. Driven by an interest in the nature of storytelling, narrative and the relationship between fiction and non-fiction, her imagery tends to explore chance, fate, memory and experience.

With a skillful use of gesture and pose, Cowin is known for staging mysterious, theatrical scenarios for the camera. Finding inspiration in European painting, her photographs blend fifteenth century Christian iconography, nineteenth century romantic visions and twentieth century surrealist juxtapositions. Her range of imagery stretches from poses found in paintings by Jan Van Eyck, Ingres and Goya to film noir and television. Untitled (Magritte) reveals Cowin’s penchant for suspense and recurring themes of privacy, victimization and voyeurism.


Born in Brooklyn, New York, she earned a BS (1968) from State University of New York at New Paltz, and an MS in Photography (1970) from the IIT Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, where she studied with Aaron Siskind and Arthur Siegel. While still in graduate school, Cowin showed her work to Gary Metz (MoMA's then curatorial intern) and Peter C. Burnell (MoMA's then Photography Curator). Consequently, MoMA acquired two images from her series of photographic transparency and magazine transfer overlays. Their recommending her work to Lee Witkin led to her being represented by his gallery, where she had one of her first solo exhibitions and co-organized one of the first comprehensive exhibitions of Lewis Hine's WPA-era photographs from the Bureau of Child Labor. She later worked in a photo stock agency for a brief time.

While teaching photography at Franconia College, New Hampshire (1971-1975), Cowin was a guest artist at California State University, Fullerton, which led to a full-time appointment until her retirement in 2008. Having already eschewed straight photography for photographic printing processes, her work was easily assimilated into Los Angeles' experimental photography scene (ca. 1975), whose photographers included Darryl Curran, John Divola and Robert Heinecken.


Since 1970, Eileen Cowin’s photographs have been featured in over forty one-person exhibitions and 165+ group exhibitions in Europe, Japan, and the United States. In addition to having had solo exhibitions at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (1985), Center for Photography, Osaka (1987), Cleveland Museum of Art (1988), Museum of Contemporary Photography (1991), Sue Spaid organized her mid-career survey, Still (and all): Eileen Cowin, 1971-1998, which the Armory Center for the Arts (Pasadena, California) originated and toured to the Southeast Museum of Photography, Daytona Beach, Florida; Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, UMBC, Baltimore, Maryland and Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, Ohio[1]

In addition to being featured in a three-person exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2011, Cowin’s work has been included in group exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2003, 1990 and 1985), Philadelphia Museum of Art (2003, 1994 and 1972), Art Institute Chicago (2002), Casino Luxembourg (1998), Long Beach Museum of Art (1994 and 1987), Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien[2] (1992), Oakland Museum of California (1992), International Center for Photography (1990 and 1987), Walker Art Center (1989), Museum of Fine Arts Houston (1989), Orange County Museum of Art (1989), Seattle Art Museum[3] (1990 and 1986), Whitney Biennial (1983), Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia[4] (1982) and Museum of Modern Art (1973). Her work was included in Paul Schimmel's 2011 swan song, "Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981" at Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.[5]

Cowin's casting herself, alongside family members, in constructed scenes, dominated her work during the early 80s, an approach that places her squarely amidst both The Pictures Generation and fourth-wave feminist photographers of the late 1990s. She gained national attention for her Family Docudrama series (1980-1983), which debuted in Los Angeles at G. Ray Hawkins Gallery in 1981 and was featured in the 1983 Whitney Biennial. Taking advantage of her twin sister's ability to appear in scenes, this series’ 75 frames capture the complexity of female identity from multiple vantages. Despite Cowin's having assigned each character a specific role, gesture and emotion, each elaborately-constructed scene still elicits literal, metaphoric and personal interpretations.

Cowin's One Night Stand, her 1977-1978 suite of about 38 images that convey both conceptual and narrative elements, anticipated the formal rigor and emotional depth that have become her oeuvre's hallmark. Writing in her mid-career survey catalog, Mark Alice Durant remarked how the “tone and color of the photographs are flat and unaffected, a strategy in keeping with the minimalist and non-theatrical aesthetic of the time. Yet even these distancing mechanisms do not obscure Cowin’s playfulness and interest in the structures of intimacy. … a humble piece of furniture,… it asks little back for its services. A nightstand may hold a water glass, eye glasses, skin lotion, birth control devices, family pictures, prescriptions, bedside reading, and may also bear silent witness to a one night stand with an inappropriate but fabulous lover. …Instant photographic prints of men and women in various stages of disrobing peak out from behind phone cords and alarm clocks, betraying what might have occurred in these rooms, just moments before.”[6]

Cowin has received numerous professional awards, including individual fellowships from the City of Santa Monica (2014-2015), California Community Foundation Fellowship (2012), City of Santa Monica (2012), Center for Cultural Innovation Investing in Artists (2011), California Arts Council New Genres (2001), Completion Grant from The Durfee Foundation (2000), City of Los Angeles (1997), Art Matters, Inc. (1994), National Endowment for the Arts (1990, 1982 and 1979). New York's Public Art Fund commissioned a work in 1990.


Her 2003 film I give you my word was awarded "Best Experimental Film" at the 2003 USA Film Festival in Dallas. This film was also selected for the 2003 Los Angeles International Short Film Festival and 2004 New Orleans Film Festival.

Public art[edit]

In 2013, Los Angeles International Airport commissioned her to create two new works. Cowin was one of 21 artists commissioned to create billboards for MAK's "how many billboards?" (2010) and Los Angeles County Museum of Art's "Made in California" (2000). In 2001, she was selected to be the inaugural artist for the Los Angeles MTA Metro Art’s project of Metro Rail Light Boxes.

Her 2006 exhibition Something Out of the Ordinary, on view at the California State University-Fullerton Gallery, survives in perpetuity as a website. Originally an archive of 500 images of everyday objects of personal significance, the website's imagery changes each time the website is refreshed.

Public collections[edit]


  • Eileen Cowin The Seer and the Scene (Seen) (System Yellow Productions, 2003)
  • Johnstone, Mark, Eileen Cowin(Tokyo: MIN Gallery, 1987)
  • Spaid, Sue, Still (and all) Eileen Cowin 1971-1998, (Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena, California, 2000) additional essay by Mark Alice Durant

Artists' books, exhibition catalogues and monographs[edit]

  • Badger, Gerry, The Pleasure of Good Photographs: Essays by Gerry Badger (Aperture Foundation, NY, 2010)
  • Baldwin, Gordon, Looking at Photographs: A Guide to Technical Terms (J. Paul Getty Museum and the British Museum, 1991)
  • Billeter, Erica, Selections 3, Polaroid Internet Home Page, 1997.
  • Cornell, Daniell, Backyard Oasis: The Swimming Pool in Southern California Pool Photography, 1945-1982 (Palm Springs: Palm Springs Art Museum, 2012)
  • Crimp, Douglas, Image Scavengers (Philadelphia, Institute for Contemporary Art, 1982)
  • Farber, Monika and Ralph Rugoff, Instant-Imaging Stories(Vienna: Museum Moderner Kunst, 1992)
  • Freeman, Judi, Eileen Cowin, Darryl Curran: The Photographic: Two Points of View (Fullerton: California State University Press, 1989)
  • Gallagher, David and Robert McCracken, Something Out There, Danger in Contemporary Photography(New York City: The National Arts Club, 1992)
  • Gauss, Kathleen, New American Photography(Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1985)
  • Glenn, Constance, Historically UAM: 25 Years of Excellence(Long Beach: University Art Museum, 1999)
  • Gonzalez, Olivia, Defining Eye: Women Photographers of the Twentieth Century (St. Louis: St. Louis Art Museum, 1997)
  • Hitchcock, Barbara, The Polaroid Book, Steve Crist editor (Köln: Taschen, 2005)
  • Hoy, Anne, Fabrications: Staged, Altered and Appropriated Photographs(New York: Abbeville Press, 1987)
  • Johnstone, Mark, Eileen Cowin, John Divola: Recent Work, No Fancy Titles(La Jolla: La Jolla Museum of Art, 1985)
  • Johnstone, Mark, 4 x 4 (Boulder: University of Colorado Gallery, 1987)
  • Johnstone, Mark, Contemporary Art in Southern California (Sydney: Craftsman House Dine Art Publishing, 1999)
  • Kojima, Hisaka, Digital Image Creation Insights into the New Photography(Berkeley: Peachpit Press, 1996)
  • Kozloff, Max, The Privileged Eye(University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1987)(additional essay Mark Alice Durant)
  • McGovern, Thomas, Witness Protection(San Bernardino: Robert V. Fullerton Art Museum, 2006)
  • Naef, Weston, New Directions in Photography: The Gallery of World Photography(Tokyo: Sueisha Publishing, 1984)
  • Roegiers, Patrick, Double Vie, Double Vue(Paris: Fondation Cartier pour l’art Contemporain, 1996)
  • Rosenblum, Naomi, A History of Women in Photography(New York: Abbeville Press, 1994)
  • Rugoff, Ralph, Scene of the Crime(Armand Hammer Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles, California, 1997)
  • Sandbye, Mette, Det Iscenesatte Fotografi,Politisk Revy’’, 1992
  • Schimmel, Paul, and Lisa Gabrielle Mark, Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981(Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2011)
  • Slemmons, Rod, Photography in the Collection of the Seattle Art Museum(Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1990)
  • Smith, Joshua, The Photography of Invention: American Pictures of the 1980s(Washington, DC: National Museum of American Art, 1989)
  • Sobieszek, Robert, Masters and Masterpieces: Photographs from the George Eastman House(New York: Abbeville Press, 1986)
  • Spaid, Sue, Still (and all) Eileen Cowin 1971-1998(Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena, California, 2000) (additional essay by Mark Alice Durant)
  • Watts, Jennifer and Claudia Bohn-Spector, This Side of Paradise: Body and Landscape in Los Angeles Photographs(London: Merrell, 2008)


  1. ^ Still (and all) Eileen Cowin 1971-1998 (Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena: 2000).
  2. ^ Farber, Monika and Ralph Rugoff, Instant-Imaging Stories (Vienna: Museum Moderner Kunst, 1992).
  3. ^ Slemmons, Rod, Photography in the Collection of the Seattle Art Museum (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1990).
  4. ^ Crimp. Douglas, Image Scavengers (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1982).
  5. ^ Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981 (Museum of Contemporary Art: Los Angeles, 2011).
  6. ^ Mark Alice Durant,Still (and all) Eileen Cowin 1971-1998 (Armory Center for the Arts: Pasadena, 2000).

External links[edit]