Emmet Gowin: Changing the Earth

In one of the first class meetings, we looked at Garth Lenz’s powerful images of the Canadian tar sands oil fields. They are an important reminder of the price our planet is paying for a few more years of cheap oil.

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One of Lenz’s probable influences is Emmet Gowin, part of the previous generation who pioneered aerial photography as a fine art to promote environmental causes. Gowin has been active as a photographer since the 1960’s. He taught at Princeton until retiring a few years back. He resides in Newtown, PA and is an active part of the Quaker community there.

Gowin’s “Changing the Earth” project began in 1986 and culminated in a 2002 monograph. The book’s cover shows the Hanford site, a problematic nuclear facility.


Mining the Coal Seam, Open Pit Strip Mine, Bohemia, Czech Republic
Mining the Coal Seam, Open Pit Strip Mine, Bohemia, Czech Republic
Pivot Agriculture, Washington

I find Gowin’s images of the Hanford site to be particularly striking; evidently he and his publishers felt the same way because they chose one of them for the book’s cover. Hanford, now largely decommissioned, is a sprawling nuclear facility dating back to the Manhattan Project. Located on the Columbia River in Washington, it is the site of the first full-scale plutonium reactor (the same one which produced material for the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki). During the Cold War, it expanded rapidly. Today, it is the most contaminated nuclear site in North America and a monumental Superfund cleanup is in progress.

The site’s proximity to the Columbia River is particularly troubling, as it is the largest river in the Pacific Northwest and an essential part of the regional ecosystem. Before the dangers of radiation were fully understood (1950’s era), the government dumped large quantities of radioactive waste directly into the Columbia. Elevated radiation levels were found all along the river all the way to the ocean. The government attempted to cover up this fiasco until they were forced to declassify related documents in the 1980’s.

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.


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.

-Emmet Gowin in an interview with PBS




One thought on “Emmet Gowin: Changing the Earth

  1. Caleb, this is an interesting and informative post. Mr. Gowin’s photojournalism also helps to raise a number of questions while providing future generations of researchers visual evidence of our impact on the earth. His work on the Hanford site is as sobering as it gets. Thanks for writing this up.