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Emmet Gowin: Changing the Earth

May 2, 2004 - July 18, 2004

(above: Emmet Gowin, American, born 1941, Off Road Traffic Pattern along the Northwest Shore of the Great Salt Lake, Utah, 1988, toned gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the artist and Yale University Art Gallery.)


This is the gift of a landscape photograph, that the heart finds a place to stand.
In a landscape photograph, both the mind and heart need to find their proper place. Before the landscape we look for an invitation to stand without premeditation. It is always, in some sense, our home. At times, we may also look for an architecture of light and a poetry of atmosphere which welcomes the eye into a landscape of natural process. It may also be the map-the evidence of the thing itself; may it also, always be a vision of the double world-the world of appearances and the invisible world all at once. Even when the landscape is greatly disfigured or brutalized, it is always deeply animated from within. When one really sees an awesome, vast, and terrible place, we tremble at the feelings we experience as our sense of wholeness is reorganized by what we see. The heart seems to withdraw and the body seems always to diminish. At such a moment, our feelings reach for an understanding.
This is the gift of a landscape photograph, that the heart finds a place to stand.



Not long after Mount St. Helens erupted in the state of Washington in 1980, Emmet Gowin chartered a light plane, flew into the immediate wilderness area devastated by the active volcano and recorded his first aerial landscape photographs. Intent on both seeing and documenting the consequences of a vast natural disaster, Gowin continued to return to the region in the years thereafter, creating images that revealed how flora and fauna began to thrive anew in the dramatically reorganized landscape. He witnessed how the earth set to healing itself. Then, one day, when bad weather prevented him from flying over his central subject, something unexpected happened. As Gowin has said of that moment:

In 1986, returning, I thought for the last time, to Mount St. Helens, I took a side trip to Yakima, Washington, and a flight that changed my whole perception of the age in which I live. In less than two hours flying over the Hanford Reservation, a pattern of relationships and a dark history of places and events emerged. Still visible after forty years were the pathways, burial mounds, and waste disposal trenches, as well as skeletal remains of a city once used by over thirty thousand people who built the first reactors and enriched the first uranium. Etched and carved into the body of the desert landscape below was a whole history of unconscious traces. The making of the atomic bomb had cost a great deal in knowledge, money, time, and hardship. It had also cost the total destruction and poisoning of a landscape and placed a great river, the Columbia, at grave risk. What I saw, imagined, and now know, was that a landscape had been created that could never be saved. I began in the next year to search for the other signs of our "nuclear age": missile silos, production sites, waste treatment and disposal sites -- in short, the realities that I had unconsciously forgotten.

Since that momentous flight in 1986, Gowin has logged hundreds of hours aloft with his camera, creating thousands of photographs that chronicle a wide variety of landscapes that have been profoundly altered by humankind. The ninety-two images presented in this exhibition and its catalogue offer a carefully edited glimpse of the military test sites, missile silos, weapons storage and disposal sites, toxic water treatment facilities, mining operations, pivot irrigation agriculture, off-road motor traffic, and more that Gowin has visited and photographed in our own country. Also included are images the artist has more recently made abroad of other landscapes, such as the scarred battlefields of Kuwait, new golf courses under construction in Japan, and the chemopetrol industries of the Czech Republic. You will surely find Gowin's still-growing visual portrait of our changing earth both beautiful and alarming to contemplate. His steady artistic efforts have quietly yielded a stunning creative gift of concern for our species to receive, one worth careful scrutiny and discussion as we all consider better ways to dwell in peace and preserve the remarkable worldly environment and resources that nurture all life as we know it.

Jock Reynolds -- The Henry J. Heinz II Director, Yale University Art Gallery


Comprised of ninety-two hand-toned aerial photographs, by one of America's leading photographers, Emmet Gowin: Changing the Earth attests to changes made by human industry on the landscape. These images offer the viewer a bird's-eye view of the possibilities and threats existing below.

This exhibition and publication project has been produced by the Yale University Art Gallery in association with the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Yale University Press. The endeavor has been very generously supported by Jane Watkins M.P.H. 1979, Anna Marie and Robert Shapiro B.A. 1956, Julia and Harrison Augur B.A. 1964, Raymond and Helen DuBois B.A. 1978, Evelyn and Robert Doran B.A. 1955, Carolyn and Gerald Grinstein B.A. 1954, Eliot Nolen B.A. 1984 and Timothy Bradley B.A. 1983, Lindsay McCrum B.A. 1980, Richard and Ronay Menschel, Betsy Frampton, Carol and Sol LeWitt, an anonymous donor, the Mr. and Mrs. George Rowland, B.A. 1933, Fund, and the Heinz Family Foundation. In El Paso, the exhibition is funded in part by Texas Commission on the Arts.


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