Witness to the Cold War in the Desert: Terry Tempest Williams on Emmet Gowin’s unflinching photos of the Nevada Test Site

“Then what is the answer?” the poet Robinson Jeffers asked.

—Not to be deluded by dreams.

To know great civilizations have broken down into violence, and their tyrants come, many times before.

When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.

To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted and not wish for evil; and not be duped.

To know this, and know however ugly the parts appear the whole remains beautiful.

PHOTO ESSAY June 5, 2022 From the print edition, High Country News hcn.org

Emmet Gowin is an artist who bears witness to wholeness in beauty and violence. He understands that one cannot exist without the other. The middle ground of wisdom is found in the making of his prints, shimmering acts of awe that reveal themselves through the spectrum of black-and-white photography. We are born and we die through violent, perfect moments of birth and death. What we create through our species’ collective imagination — be it a blessing or a curse, an explosion of glory or a nightmare revisited — is in the eye of the one who beholds a vision. Gowin holds a vision of transcendence. What can be seen can be understood and in time, perhaps, reimagined. The gods within us are both creators and destroyers. The atomic bombs “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” that America dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, ended World War II. But war still resides in each nuclear warhead stockpiled in the U.S., some 3,750 nuclear warheads as of 2020, plus approximately 2,000 retired warheads awaiting dismantlement, according to the U.S. Department of State. Imagine, in 1967, during the peak of the Cold War, 31,255 nuclear warheads scattered throughout the countryside. Today, they are stockpiled in 11 states and five foreign countries. 

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