Stark, metallic pictures of bomb disposal sites and nuclear landscapes hang calmly beside eroding silver ore mines and shadowed deserts in the American West, emblematic of what humanity has managed to create — and destroy — in its quest for a new frontier.
“Emmet Gowin: Changing the Earth, Aerial Photographs,” which will be shown today at the Yale University Art Gallery to the general public for the first time, comprises 92 aerial landscapes of the American West, Kansas and the Czech Republic.
The show, which will be on display until July 28, is the first major touring exhibit of Gowin’s work in more than 10 years. It will be paired with a new book of the same title by Jock Reynolds, the director of the Yale Art Gallery and the curator of the exhibit.
Reynolds’ book, which reprints images in the order they have been displayed in the exhibition, includes “The Earth Stares Back,” by Terry Tempest Williams; “Above the Fruited Plain: Reflections on the Origins and Trajectories of Emmet Gowin’s Aerial Landscape Photographs,” by Reynolds; and an interview with Gowin conducted by Philip Brookman, titled “Keys are Stronger Than the Doors They Open.”
While Reynolds’ book includes the images in Gowin’s exhibit, it is otherwise unadorned. Reynolds said he instead attempted to describe other referenced images in detail within his essay, in an effort to keep the focus on Gowin’s photography.
“It just didn’t feel like a book that should be illustrated in a more academic way,” Reynolds said. “The book hopes to really let the images speak first and foremost.”
Reynolds’ book serves as a gateway to the exhibit as much as it provides an alternate rendering of the series.
“It’s different to encounter the images one leafed over the other than it is to see them on the wall,” Reynolds said.
There are very few horizons in the series of images. The land itself is the focus; the scars from human waste trace images upon the sands that are visible only to those with an aerial perspective.
“The 92 images themselves stand alone as a narrative sequence,” Reynolds said about both the exhibit and his book.
He said the muted photograph titles used in both the exhibit and the book were chosen to allow the images time to make an impression on their own, before the viewer gains knowledge of their significance.
But even the most inattentive visitor cannot help but notice Gowin’s quotes upon the walls in the exhibit’s first room, which serve to alert the visitor to the reality behind the seemingly foreign images. The first pictures in the series, of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, were taken in 1986 during a flight across Washington state.
“There are certain absolute powers of beauty and abstraction that you see in the work,” Reynolds said. “These images make you think about where you are and what you’re seeing.”
Two other photography exhibits surveying the work of American landscape photographers Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz will be shown concurrently with the Gowin exhibit. Adams’ “What We Bought: The New World” and Baltz’s “Park City” both investigate human abuse of the Western landscape as Gowin’s exhibit does, though from a closer vantage point. Both exhibits were purchased by the art gallery two years ago, but are being shown to the public at the gallery for the first time.