Witness to the Cold War in the desert

Terry Tempest Williams on Emmet Gowin’s unflinching photos of the Nevada Test Site.

“Then what is the answer?” the poet Robinson Jeffers asked.

   —Not to be deluded by dreams.

To know great civilizations have broken down into violence, and their tyrants come, many times before.

When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.

To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted and not wish for evil; and not be duped…

To know this, and know however ugly the parts appear the whole remains beautiful.

 

Emmet Gowin is an artist who bears witness to wholeness in beauty and violence. He understands that one cannot exist without the other. The middle ground of wisdom is found in the making of his prints, shimmering acts of awe that reveal themselves through the spectrum of black-and-white photography. We are born and we die through violent, perfect moments of birth and death. What we create through our species’ collective imagination — be it a blessing or a curse, an explosion of glory or a nightmare revisited — is in the eye of the one who beholds a vision. Gowin holds a vision of transcendence. What can be seen can be understood and in time, perhaps, reimagined. The gods within us are both creators and destroyers. The atomic bombs “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” that America dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, ended World War II. But war still resides in each nuclear warhead stockpiled in the U.S., some 3,750 nuclear warheads as of 2020, plus approximately 2,000 retired warheads awaiting dismantlement, according to the U.S. Department of State. Imagine, in 1967, during the peak of the Cold War, 31,255 nuclear warheads scattered throughout the countryside. Today, they are stockpiled in 11 states and five foreign countries. 

Gowin’s photographs of the Nevada Test Site (now known as the Nevada National Security Site) show us the extremity of our darkest dreams laid bare in the Mojave Desert — the scars of technology gone mad, revealing a moonscape of craters right here on Earth. The stillness of the desert exploded into a million pieces of radioactive shrapnel carried by the wind that lodged in our bodies. 

“My mother, my grandmothers, and six aunts have all had mastectomies and seven are dead,” I wrote in my essay The Clan of One-Breasted Women in 1991. Now, more than three decades later, more than half my family has succumbed to cancer. I do not think this is an accident, nor is it unique. My family is one story in an anthology of thousands. Our bodies and the body of Earth have been contaminated for generations. And not just from nuclear testing but also uranium mining and mine tailings leaching into rivers and drinking water and the air we breathe. Mormon and Native communities, miners, military personnel and Indigenous people throughout the Four Corners region have all suffered losses that continue to mount, all intrinsically tied to living dangerously in the Atomic Southwest.

Subsidence craters and the Yucca Fault, looking north on Yucca Flat, Nevada Test Site, 1996. 37°5'56.71" N, 116°2'49.60" W
Emmet Gowin/Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery
 

Subsidence craters, looking southeast from Area 8, Yucca Flat, Nevada Test Site, 1996. 37°9'20.56" N, 116°5'13.52" W
Emmet Gowin/Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery

“My mother, my grandmothers, and six aunts have all had mastectomies and seven are dead.”

Emmet Gowin and I have been friends for decades. We share a history of family and place that began with a letter he wrote me after reading Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. We met in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Edith, at the Tabard Inn. We talked for hours about the sacred nature of life and the responsibilities of artists to respond. He spoke of his desire to photograph the Nevada Test Site, but it was forbidden by the military. Finally, years later, he was given a special clearance, the first photographer to witness the landscape where the nuclear tests had occurred. I will never forget his phone call to me after his first flight in December 1996.

“It happened,” Emmet said. “You didn’t make it up.” His voice was strangely euphoric. He knew of the deaths in my family — my mother, my grandmothers, my aunts. He also knew that without seeing the evidence that was buried, I had doubted myself. A part of me was still naïve enough to believe our government would not do such a thing. “What I saw, Terry, I could never have imagined. But I have the pictures. It was like flying over the moon.”

Days later, Emmet shared with me that the gravity and weight of what he had seen had settled into the shadowed territory of a  violent truth. 

Tower and diagnostic array for the US/UK test Icecap, suspended 1992, Nevada Test Site, 1996. 37°4'42.80" N, 116°2'53.23" W (left) Three subsidence craters within a security fence, looking west, Area 10, Nevada Test Site, 1996. 37°11'38.08" N, 116°1'47.92 W (right)
Emmet Gowin/Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery

The United States of America detonated over 100 “atmospheric nuclear bombs” above ground from 1951 through 1962 — and continued testing hundreds more below ground until 1992. More than 900 nuclear tests were conducted over the Nevada desert and watched from rooftops by locals for entertainment during the Cold War in small towns like St. George, Utah. Residents now known as “downwinders” were unaware that each “bomb bursting in air” was to become a time bomb set inside their own bodies that would explode years later and threaten their lives. The last nuclear test, named “Divider,” was conducted on Sept. 23, 1992. On Jan. 3, 1993, the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was signed between the United States and Russia, ending the era of atomic testing. By that time, the U.S. had conducted more nuclear tests than any other country in the world.

Those who say nuclear weapons are a deterrent against war and an assurance toward peace are deceiving themselves, believing the red, white and blue diet of an unchecked patriotism that ultimately takes our lives. Or as my father would say, an America “full of poppycock” defined as “nonsense,” (1862, American English, probably from Dutch dialect pappekak, from Middle Dutch pappe “soft food” + kak “dung,” from Latin cacare “to excrete,” from root *kakka- “to defecate”). 

View from the center of Yucca Flat, looking south, Areas 9, 7 and 3, Nevada Test Site, 1996. 37°3'10.83" N, 116°0'46.99" W
Emmet Gowin/Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery

Nuclear weapons are not a safeguard against war, they are the harbingers of a violence ready made and waiting. 

We may no longer be in the Cold War that Emmet Gowin and I grew up in, but we are in a new war more dangerous and threatening than anyone dreamed possible in the 21st century, while we are also in the midst of climate collapse and a global pandemic.

On Thursday, April 28, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the West of a “lightning fast” response if any nation intervenes in the Ukraine war. President Joe Biden called the war “a genocide.” And we feel helpless watching vibrant cities fall and burn as the citizens of Ukraine fight and flee and die among the ruins from the heinous atrocities of war.  

Nuclear weapons are not a safeguard against war, they are the harbingers of a violence ready made and waiting. It is human nature to use the tools we have made, no matter how vile. With Putin’s war underway in Ukraine, the horror of a possible nuclear winter has resurfaced.

Emmet Gowin is an artist of elegant consciousness and craft. To experience these physical prints in person, viewed in a gallery, is to appreciate the technical artistry of his black-and-white photographs — from a shimmering luminosity to unfathomable darkness. He has used his tools of perception, precision and patience to illuminate what we are capable of — great acts of beauty and grave acts of destruction. Gowin’s harrowing photographs in his searing book, The Nevada Test Site, are testaments to the blinding certitude of power that builds a vision of peace based on weapons of war, a malevolent technology that pushes beyond the outer reaches of a moral intelligence.

Yucca Flat, complex roads and subsidence craters crossed by lines of sight, looking northeast, Area 7, Nevada Test Site, 1996. 37°4'8.14" N, 116°0'4.32" W (right) Frenchman Flat, looking southeast, Nevada Test Site, 1996. 36°48'42.26" N, 115°55'49.61" W (left)
Emmet Gowin/Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery

 

For me, Emmet Gowin is a holy man, a humble and determined witness who made vows to expose what has been hidden, allowing us to see the stark evidence and disturbing aesthetic of testing evil.

The Sedan Crater is the largest crater at the Nevada Test Site, measuring 1,280 feet in diameter. “The device was detonated only 635 feet below the surface,” Gowin wrote, “in order to demonstrate how much earth could be moved with one explosion.” The thermonuclear test used was roughly 104 kilotons — “similar in yield … to the warhead of a Minuteman I missile.” He photographed the Sedan Crater in 1996, from the vantage point of a small plane, kin to an eagle looking down on the desert. On that clear December day, the crater appears as a dark eye looking upward. It does not blink.   

Sedan Crater, northern end of Yucca Flat, Nevada Test Site, 1996. 37°10'33.39" N, 116°2'25.41" W
Emmet Gowin/Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery

Looking east from Yucca Lake toward Plutonium Valley, Nevada Test Site, 1997. 36°58'27.57" N, 115°59'43.63" W
Emmet Gowin/Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery

Terry Tempest Williams is the author of several books, including Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place and The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. Her most recent book is Erosion: Essays of Undoing. She is currently Writer-in-Residence at Harvard Divinity School.

All images courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery. Images excerpted from The Nevada Test Site by Emmet Gowin. Copyright © 2019 by Emmet Gowin. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press. Gowin’s latest publication, The Hundred Circle Farm, is a companion book to The Nevada Test Site and was published in April 2022, also by Princeton University Press.

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