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“Emmet Gowin:

Changing the Earth”

At the Corcoran Gallery of Art to Jan. 6

For much of his career, Emmet Gowin has been a photographer of great intimacy, in every sense of the word. Between the late ’60s and the late ’70s, the Princeton University professor made his best-known images in his own living room and back yard. They usually feature the people closest to Gowin: his children and, especially, his wife, Edith, who frequently posed for him nude. Even the photographic method Gowin used during that period was intended to draw the viewer into his small-horizoned world: His eccentric combination of a medium-format lens attached to a large-format camera was a mismatch that produced oddly constrained circular images.

Less well-known, at least until the opening of “Emmet Gowin: Changing the Earth” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, is the project Gowin worked on for much of the ’80s and ’90s, when he flew in a small, specially outfitted plane, at some risk to his personal safety, to photograph the Western landscape and its man-made defects.

These two approaches couldn’t be more different. Ian Jeffrey’s The Photography Book—a survey published in 2000, before Gowin’s aerial work became widely known—called the artist

…the first photographer in the USA to see home life as a world in itself, which could represent the greater family of man, myths and ancestors. In particular he pointed to the small events, pleasures and even irritations of home life as being engrossing in their own right. In the visual culture of the 1970s, Gowin’s cast of familiars stood as a corrective to the blighted landscapes of the New Topographers and to the commercial and metropolitan culture celebrated by Andy Warhol.

What’s interesting here isn’t just that Mr. Home and Hearth suddenly went all blighted-landscape on us. (“When I look at the American landscape,” he has said, “I…feel with great sadness that we did this to ourselves.”) Equally striking is that he went from a keyhole view to a bird’s-eye perspective in a single bound. Erosion, Highway Route 6 and Rail Cut, Looking North From Green River, Utah (1988), for instance, clearly reveals the contrast between rivulets carved by nature and the swoosh of a roadway carved by earthmovers. Glacial Furrows and Bomb Disposal Craters, Umatilla Army Depot, Hermiston, Oregon, from 1991, makes the point even more dramatically: A series of parallel landforms resolve themselves into a near-perfect facsimile of a sneaker print—a nice metaphor for man’s impact on the landscape.

Abandoned Air Strip, Old Hanford City Site, Hanford Nuclear Reservation Near Richland, Washington (1986) is equally emphatic: Its twin runways form a giant, slashing X on the ground. And if you prefer disease as your metaphor, then Bomb Disposal Site, Tooele Army Depot, Utah (1988) suggests the visual similarities between disposal mounds and smallpox pustules, and Mining Exploration in Two Centuries, Butte, Montana (1988) presents scars in the land that look distinctly like sutures.

Gowin began making pictures like these in 1980, after receiving a grant to take aerial photographs of the recently erupted Mount St. Helens. Initially, his black-and-white images posed a bracing visual alternative—if not a philosophical one—to those of the key New Topographic photographers, most of whom worked from a land-bound perspective. Almost a quarter-century later, however, both Gowin’s aerial methodology and his environmental-impact theme have been taken up by a host of other artists. In 1999, for example, Yann Arthus-Bertrand published Earth From Above, a large-format, pro-environmentalist, and pro-multicultural volume held together by an often stunning series of airborne images taken all over the planet.

And in just the past two years, Washington has been the site of several exhibitions of work by airborne chroniclers of the Western landscape, most notably Adriel Heisey and Mark Abrahamson. Heisey focused on the expanding footprint of housing developments in the Southwest, and Abrahamson documented the colorful but deadly hues of mine pollution in Montana. Each, with notable success, depicted the Western landscape’s unique combination of visual splendor and environmental despoliation.

Gowin’s own approach pays its richest dividends when he lets scale melt away and allows abstraction to take over. The furrowed, shrub-dotted mountain slopes of 1988’s Natural Drainage Systems Near the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Station, Arizona exist in a dreamy, almost pointillist vision of the West that has been out of favor since the disappearance of low-resolution stereopticons in the early 20th century. And Off Road Traffic Pattern, Along the Northwest Shore of the Great Salt Lake, Utah (1988), which captures vehicle tracks marking an otherwise featureless sand-filled landscape, cleverly pays homage to key Gowin mentor Harry Callahan, who sometimes made high-contrast photographs of wispy plant tendrils amid accumulations of snow.

Gowin’s photographs of irrigation patterns are equally memorable. Some draw the eye with patterns: crop rows in pinstriped, ramrod-straight designs, drainage ditches that look like splatters of blood. Others suggest New York School paintings. The circular—or, from Gowin’s perch, oblong—agricultural plots in Pivot Irrigation Near the One Hundred Circle Farm and the McNary Dam on the Columbia River, Washington (1991) hint at a canvas splotched by Robert Motherwell. Erosion in a Dark Field, Washington (1991) could have been painted in shades of black by Ad Reinhardt. And the fine lines that grace a pockmarked surface in Pivot Agriculture Over Glacial Potholes, Near Moses Lake, Washington (1991) strongly suggest Jasper Johns’ target paintings.

A separate pivot-agriculture series taken by Gowin in Kansas in 1995 is even more impressive: These images of fields blanketed by a layer of snow look as if they’d been sent through a low-resolution fax machine a few times before being mounted and hung. Pieces such as Pivot Agriculture Near Garden City, Kansas and Tracks in Snow Over an Agricultural Pivot Near Liberal, Kansas hardly seem, on first glance, like photography at all. Indeed, they mostly suggest a series of circular prints by Judy Pfaff now on display at the David Adamson Gallery.

When Gowin aims for more conventional representation, his work tends to suffer. Consider a series the artist made at the Nevada Test Site, where the United States conducted underground nuclear-weapons tests until an early-’90s moratorium. Given this series’s prominent location at the end of both the exhibition and the catalog, one might assume that Gowin considers it something of an artistic climax. But although some of its images are undoubtedly impressive—Subsidence Craters, Looking East From Area 8, Nevada Test Site (1996), for example, documents a surface scarred as far as the eye can see—others are oddly underwhelming. Maybe it’s the clear desert air, the mostly featureless topography, or the sheer repetition of so many craters, but many of the test-site images are both less ambiguous and less visually compelling than Gowin’s near-abstractions.

Similar problems hamper other series in “Changing the Earth.” One project, completed between 1992 and 1994 in the Czech Republic, features mined-out and smog-choked vistas, but their literalist portrayal would serve a more useful function in an environmental-crimes trial than on a gallery wall, where they fall comparatively flat. And photographs of the Kuwaiti desert strewn with abandoned Iraqi tanks and of a golf course being built in Japan offer comparatively few visual possibilities next to Gowin’s shots of pivot agriculture and weapons-disposal sites.

To his credit, Gowin, unlike Arthus-Bertrand in Earth From Above, lets his works make an environmentalist point without going into hysterics. Given that approach, it seems almost churlish to ask whether Gowin believes that all of the “changes” he’s recorded are equally negative. Some are clearly regrettable. Others, though apparently ruinous when seen from an airplane, serve constructive purposes: Some of them treat polluted water, some provide nesting areas for birds, and some are planted and harvested to feed a growing human population. Even those pustule-like bomb-disposal facilities are for the good of the planet: They secure weapons that could otherwise be used in war. That hardly seems like a misguided trade-off, and it would have been nice to see Gowin acknowledge the paradox more clearly.

Still, in the context of Gowin’s project, this is a minor point. In some ways, the greatest disappointment of “Changing the Earth” is that Gowin didn’t do more with the aesthetic he created in one remarkable photograph: 1988’s Cloud Shadow Over the Desert, Near the Round Mountain Mining District, Nevada. In that image, Gowin captured the shadows cast by clouds swirling above the desert floor. It’s difficult to tell exactly what makes the piece so extraordinary. Perhaps it’s the clouds’ energy-filled, vortexlike pattern. Maybe it’s the unexpected perspective of seeing their shadows from afar and above. Or maybe it’s the way this multilayered landscape is rendered into one nearly seamless surface, making it very hard to tell where the clouds end and the earth begins. Whatever it is, the vibe is distinctly buoyant—a welcome, unexpected surprise within a show whose main purpose is to highlight humanity’s hubris. CP