Peter Goin's camera takes stark view of America's landscapes

April 25, 1991|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special The Evening Sun

Photographer Peter Goin obviously feels that to understand the American character you must look at the American landscape and what man has done to it. He doesn't even feel the need to put any people in his landscape photographs.

In an exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art, "Peter Goin: The Land as Witness," he presents two separate series: a group of color photographs, "Nuclear Landscapes," that show the present day appearance of nuclear testing sites in the American West and the South Pacific, and a group of black-and-white photographs, "Tracing the Line," that follows the Mexican-American border. Incidentally, Goin's "Nuclear Landscapes" also are the subject of a just-published book from the Johns Hopkins University Press.

Because nuclear testing sites are almost entirely off limits to the standard visitor, there's a built-in interest in seeing how they look from (relatively) up close. Some of these sites still have dangerous levels of radioactivity, so Goin was understandably a bit nervous about where he planted his tripod.

Like many of us, Goin is astounded by the powerful explosions that were unleashed in the name of scientific research and national defense. He's also struck by the ironies involved when these test sites for a new technology themselves quickly became historic landmarks. The Trinity explosion in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, was the first nuclear explosion. The site is now a national historic landmark, which is marked by a memorial that visitors are allowed to see twice a year.

More than monuments, though, Goin's camera searches out the ruins that litter the nuclear landscape. Government officials curious to gauge the destructive power of the bombs, for instance, actually constructed "doom" towns near ground zero to see how much damage these buildings would suffer. "How would a house withstand nuclear wind?" asks the caption on one photograph. Located 7,500 feet from ground zero for a 1955 blast, the house's foundation was shifted was by that nuclear wind. In what must rank with the oddest instances of historic preservation, this house has since been partially restored and stands as a charred relic of atomic destruction.

Goin's photographs of these altered landscapes in Nevada and Washington state effectively make his point, but his most interesting photographic studies of nuclear scarring were done on two of the Marshall Islands of the South Pacific. In that tropical paradise, weapons testers built bunkers with 8-foot-thick concrete walls meant to withstand the nearby blasts and protect the sensitive monitoring equipment housed within.

Now, vegetation has nearly overgrown the bunkers, but their concrete bulk pokes above the jungle. The bunkers do indeed have a deadly half-life. As the photographer has observed, these bunkers uncannily resemble the Mayan ruins that will be around for hundreds of years.

These are photographs to make you stop and consider -- or reconsider -- the environmental cost of nuclear testing. Goin wants the photographs to speak for themselves, but clearly they are his own contribution to a much broader didactic effort.

The Mexican-American border series seems like a good idea, but, at least in this installation, it doesn't quite succeed. Thinking about the border as a line drawn between cultures, Goin set out to chart its monuments, fences and rivers in what he says is the first such comprehensive survey.

However, the sequence of photos here gives us a somewhat haphazard sense of how the topography changes along the border. Also, while the man-made paths along hillsides and the holes cut in fences convey the desperate persistence of Mexicans illegally crossing into this country, these human traces don't tell us quite enough about the respective cultures.

"Peter Goin: The Land as Witness" remains at the Baltimore Museum of Art through July 14. Call 396-6310.tion.

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