In the catalogue for a 2002 exhibition of Emmet Gowin’s aerial photographs of landscapes altered by human activity, Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery, recounts that a friend referred to one of the images as “immorally beautiful.” If only things were so simple—if only morality were always staunchly pro- or anti-beauty, and vice versa. Something stranger happens in the photographs of the Nevada Test Site (NTS) that Gowin took in the mid-’90s. Beauty curls tightly around morality and politics and history, not strangling them outright but squeezing, cracking, and coaxing unlike parts together.
Seen one way, these images—the subject of Pace’s small but heady exhibition—depict apocalypse. They may also suggest a beginning, of the kind apocalypse provides: creative destruction, a vast slate-wiping. From 1951 to 1991, the Nevada Test Site, located in the desert some sixty miles northwest of Las Vegas, saw the detonation of several thousand atomic bombs, enough to make the United States by far the most nuked country on the planet. Gowin’s fascination with the area began in 1980 when he was photographing the Mount St. Helens eruption from an airplane and noticed a Manhattan Project facility, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. A decade of negotiations with the Department of Energy followed. By the time he won permission to shoot classified nuclear zones, the Cold War was over, the NTS had been shut down, and the federal government was shelling out millions to workers who had contracted cancer from the weaponry they’d built. The public was beginning to be more frightened of hurricanes than H-bombs, the delicate creep of annihilation instead of a sudden burst.
Gowin’s photographs are rich enough to evoke both kinds of apocalypse, and a few others. Shot in high-contrast black-and-white and rarely printed larger than a foot square, they avoid the easy…