Goin's photographic skill undermines his message

April 12, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Peter Goin

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive.

When: Through July 14.

Tickets: $3.50 general admission; seniors/students $2.50. Free admission on Thursdays.

Call: 396-7101. The trouble with Peter Goin's photographs, being shown at the Baltimore Museum of Art under the title "The Land as Witness," is that the land in these pictures all too often is not witness.

According to the text that accompanies the show, these photos document "land changed by man with . . . no attention to future implications of such usage" and present a "polemic view of man's shortsightedness and lack of responsibility."

Goin's is an admirable project. The larger of the two series here pictures nuclear test sites on the American continent and in the Pacific, thousands of miles of land rendered uninhabitable. On the labels that accompany his color photographs of these sites, Goin makes his case about the frightful destruction, waste and expense of nuclear testing and the disposal of nuclear waste.

For instance, the "Cactus" nuclear detonation on the Enewetak Atoll made a crater 30 feet deep and 350 feet across. The cleanup required gathering 110,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and debris and burying it under an 18-inch-thick concrete dome. It took three years and cost $120 million.

But what do we see? We see a picture of the sleek dome with an oil drum placed at its apex that makes it, the label says, look like a giant breast from the air. Like much of the rest of Goin's work, the information here may appall you but the photo doesn't.

The same thing happens time after time. The picture of the Gable Mountain Pond waste burial site, capable of holding millions of gallons of radioactive waste in tanks that may already be leaking, shows a plain before rising mountains: The deposited waste has been covered up.

The problem is twofold. First, it's easy to deplore all-too-evident human damage to the land in photographs -- e.g., cheap housing sprawling across a once-beautiful valley, or an otherwise idyllic scene strewn with trash. But photos of neat, empty land just look nice; they work against rather than support the accompanying words.

Second, Goin is a good photographer, so even his pictures of abandoned buildings or other evidence of destruction tend to look attractive thanks to his aesthetic eye. A picture of a nuclear bunker complex is notable for its composition, its colors, its light. At times it appears that Goin exploits a particular subject's potential for beauty rather than ugliness, even though the latter would strengthen his case.

It's hard to understand the point of the other series in the show, black and white photos of the border between Mexico and the United States. The subtext seems to be the idiocy of borders in general, a thought to which we can all subscribe in the perfect knowledge that while borders may change from time to time there will always be borders.

Here again, if Goin's point is to depress or enrage, his skills as a photographer now and then betray him -- as in the handsome composition of tree and fence in the photo of the westernmost marker near the Pacific Ocean.

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