Emmet Gowin: Changing the Earth

  The word "beauty" does not normally come to mind at the mention of bomb testing, open-pit mining, chemical disposal, or the marks these activities have left on the Western landscape. But Changing the Earth, a book and traveling exhibit of Emmet Gowin’s aerial photographs, lends rich texture and a mysterious vitality to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the Nevada Test Site and other areas hard hit by industrial and military development.

From Gowin’s bird’s-eye view, bomb disposal craters at the Umatilla Army Depot in Hermiston, Ore., look like ancient fossils and mimic furrows left on the land by the retreat of glaciers. Off-road vehicle tracks in Utah look like the angry scribbles of a child over a classmate’s rich collage. Circular wheat fields in western Washington remind one of a palimpsest — the pivoting irrigation marks overrun but do not conceal the land’s older topography of pothole lakes and wetlands.

Gowin’s photos are testament to the geologic scale at which humans have altered the landscape in just one century, and to the difficult history the scars often represent. But the tension between environmental destruction and the beauty alive in each of the portraits conveys a melancholy hope for landscapes, and for our place within them.

"Even when the landscape is greatly disfigured or brutalized," writes Gowin, "it is always deeply animated from within."

Emmet Cowin: Changing the Earth, Jock Reynolds, with essays by Terry Tempest Williams and Philip Brookman, Yale University Press, 2002. 128 pages. Hardcover: $45. The exhibit will travel through Salt Lake City, Billings, El Paso and Seattle in 2003 and 2004.