Passionate about the world surrounding him, Emmet Gowin has photographed aspects of nature—from tiny insects to expansive aerial views of the landscape—for more than forty years. Force of Nature features Gowin’s photographs of Mount St. Helens, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, and the Nevada Test Site nuclear grounds. Together, these images trace nature’s unpredictable power and humanity’s own forceful manipulation of the American West.
Between 1980 and 1986, Gowin photographed Mount St. Helens, which erupted in May 1980 with a force equal to 27,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs. Initially working from an aircraft and later on the ground, he charted the stunning aftermath of the natural phenomenon: Horizonless forests of felled trees and abstract mudflows dripping down the mountainside suggest a seemingly endless field of devastation and capture nature’s raw and stunning power.
In 1986, while still photographing Mount St. Helens, Gowin made a side trip to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. In his first foray into the nuclear landscape, he documented aspects of the country’s most contaminated nuclear site from above. Ten years later, Gowin photographed the secretive Nevada Test Site, where more than 800 nuclear experiments were conducted between 1951 and 1992. As a group, the three series reveal the terrible beauty of natural and human markmaking on the land initiated by sudden chaos and controlled usage: massive craters, linear trenches and roadways, and hardened rivers of lava.
The mythic American West has been a mainstay of landscape photography since the introduction of the medium. Gowin’s late-20th-century consideration of Mount St. Helens, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, and the Nevada Test Site continues the photographic interpretation of and concern for the promising but unpredictable natural world west of the Mississippi.
Organized by the Portland Art Museum and curated by Julia Dolan, Ph.D., The Minor White Curator of Photography.