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Crater photo by Emmet Gowin
Science and Health:
Photo Essay: Changing the Earth
Photographer Emmet Gowin has been taking the measure of the human footprint on the earth. Those stunning aerial photographs are now gathered into a new book, CHANGING THE EARTH. It's part of an exhibition that will soon be traveling across the country.

Emmet Gowin documents our tracks and traces on the earth in a Photo Essay.

Emmet Gowin
Emmet Gowin (photo by Charles Lyon)

Photo Essay

Emmet Gowin talks about CHANGING THE EARTH

Q: What moved you to photograph the Earth?

I never felt I was ever photographing anything but the Earth. My life as an artist began focused on a family, one family, our own family, the rearing of children, sort of the coming into being of the consciousness of a child was my first subject. I couldn't have told anyone then. But I slowly came to recognize that we really ourselves are children of the Earth. We're made out of the Earth. We're stardust. If our birthplace is the thermonuclear burning of hydrogen and all of the heavier metals, all of the heavier elements evolve out of that burning of hydrogen. All of the things that compose our bodies, all of the things that we see around us are composed out of those elementary particles. So, to photograph one's self is to actually look at a subset of the Earth, a piece of Earth in a transitory state. It was Earth. And it will be Earth again.

I work to educate my own feelings. I work for an incompleteness within myself. When I first went to Hanford in Washington State I was very reluctant to go. I had actually turned down an opportunity or an offer to go to Washington State on behalf of the Yakima Northwest Coast Peoples. I just felt it was out of my content. I was still completely involved with human beings, the personal life, and once I had seen the landscape from the air, once I had seen the place called Hanford, the nuclear reservation, I felt I couldn't turn back. I wanted to see something that I didn't understand, and once I'd seen it, I felt an obligation toward it.

Gowin describes his first view of the man-altered landscape of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation* in Washington State.

When I went to Hanford for the first time, it was with a tremendous sense of shyness. I felt like I must be breaking some law. I was really surprised when the only restriction was that the airplane fly at least at an altitude of 2,400 feet. And when I saw the city site of old Hanford, which was when I saw it in '86 just the skeletal remains of what had once been a city, the first thought I had was that it's been destroyed by a neutron bomb, that it was a test city. It didn't occur to me that had it been dismantled piece by piece and ... in my inability to understand exactly what I was seeing, I could invent a very terrible explanation for what I was seeing. Concurrent ... at the same moment that I was concerned what happened to all these people, where did this all go, the slant of October light struck the grass so beautifully, it was as if a sublime innocence of grass, opened to the sun, opened to luminance. It left me speechless.

Q:Can you could tell me what special insights about Earth you get from the altitude?

I think the altitude is really important. And when I first saw Hanford with the 2,400 foot restriction I was astonished how well you could understand the history of a landscape from that distance. You would have thought you would have been completely out of touch. And on one scale, you were certainly out of touch. You could not have from that height measured radioactivity or picked up a bit of debris from the ground. But the overall pattern of the way the landscape is already fully occupied and fully in use is one of the astonishing figures.

For example, you look down onto the landscape of the Umatilla Army Depot near Hermiston, Oregon from quite a height. That the small area, and it's truly a relatively small area, in which wasted or out-of-date munitions and bombs are destroyed. There's something just a little bit metaphorical about the structure of the order that has been given to the way these bombs have been destroyed, because there's something of the quality of a fossil, and the structure, this pattern that's been produced by these exploded bombs. But underneath this very delicate structure that looks something like a fossil, are the great and ancient grooves cut by the glacier when it wore its way across Washington State and Oregon.

When you think about how man has visually scarred and continually altered the earth — what is the conclusion you've come to from that?

I'm so conscious now that concern for the plight or the fate of the Earth is something that any grade-school child can tell you about. They really are concerned. They sense at some deep level that something is happening, and that it can't go on this way forever. So, I don't feel like I'm preaching to those who don't know. I think we're all conscious of this. What moves me so is to come face to face with the evidence itself and to find out that the world is much more subtle, much more complicated than I ever dreamed.

I think we need the mythology of a collective responsibility for the collective inheritance, a shared inheritance of the Earth. I think every once in awhile you get the hint that we're ready for such an idea, and that it's just about to happen. I can only think about the moment I'm living in right now. This is surely a time for grace and beauty, and it's as if the world doesn't accept that.

BIOGRAPHY: Born in Danville, Virginia in 1941, Emmet Gowin is Professor of Photography in the Council of the Humanities, Princeton University. A recipient of a Guggenheim (1974) and two NEA Fellowships (1977 and 1979), he has also received awards from the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (1983), the Seattle Arts Commission (1980), the 1983 Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts from the State of Pennsylvania, the 1992 Friends of Photography Peer Award, and a Pew Fellowship in the Arts for 1993-94.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation is sited on land in Western Washington that had been occupied by Umatilla and Yakima Indians. Some of the lands were first ceded to the government for the Manhattan Project in 1943. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation has been a storage facility for nuclear waste.

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