Emmet Gowin was born in Danville, Virginia In 1941. He graduated in Graphic Design from the Richmond Professional institute in 1965 and in Photography from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 1967. He got married to Edith Morris in 1964, while in the Richmond Professional Institute and started photographing her and her family. While at RISD, he studied with a photographer, Harry Callahan, and he began concentrate on his family subject. A few years later, he met Frederick Sommer, whose work, personal philosophy and print technique would be affected him deeply.
He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974 and a National Endowment for Arts Fellowship in 1977 and 1979.
He began taking aerial photographs soon after Mt. Helens erupted in 1980. For the next 20 years, he documented cultivated lands, nuclear waste dumps, nuclear testing fields and other scars by humans in the natural landscape.
His works can be found in museum collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Museum of Modern Art New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art.