Imaging a Shattering Earth: Contemporary Photography and the Environmental Debate
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Peter Goin
Born in Madison, WI, in 1951
Resides in Reno, NV

Peter Goin is a Professor of Art at the University of Nevada. In addition to teaching video and photography, Goin takes photographs of the environment. His work features nuclear sites, mining sites, irrigated and dwindling rivers, parched terrains, and polluted areas.

Goin aspires to bring attention to problems not visible by the eye alone. As described by Jonathan Long—who is also featured in Imaging a Shattering Earth—Goin’s “intent is to make people aware of the damage that has occurred.” Long quotes Goin: “destruction must not be measured entirely in terms of human sickness and loss, but also in terms of harm to the land itself. We must respect the fact that all of us depend upon the land—and clean air, and clean water—for our survival” (Long, 13). Long adds that Goin hopes to show and inform others of the effects people have on the environment.

Through his books, Goin has raised environmental awareness. In addition to editing Arid Waters: Photographs from the Water in the West Project (2002), Goin has written and co-authored Humanature (1996), Changing Mines in America (2004) with Elizabeth Raymond, and A Doubtful River (2000) with Robert Dawson and Mary Webb. In addition, Goin’s photographs have been displayed in over 50 museums.

Goin has received two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a 1994 EMMY nomination, the 2001 Best Experimental Video Award, and the 1999 Nevada Governor’s Millennium Arts Award for Excellence in the Arts. In addition, Goin’s photographs have been displayed in over 50 museums.

Goin has received two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a 1994 EMMY nomination, the 2001 Best Experimental Video Award, and the 1999 Nevada Governor’s Millennium Arts Award for Excellence in the Arts.

Pictures in Gallery


Works Description


Peter Goin came up with the concept of “humanature” when he realized that nothing on earth is truly natural because human beings are always influencing their surroundings. “Throughout history, people have altered the Earth’s air, water, and soil in order to survive and thrive as a species” (Humanature, 1). Human beings have changed waterways, cut down forests, killed entire populations of animals, and many other things that not only affect small vicinities, but also entire ecosystems.

In Humanature, Goin goes through the many ways that people have impacted the environment throughout history, and illustrates the marks they have left. The book is divided into eight sections: “Trees,” “The Zoo,” “Beaches,” “The Mine,” “Reclaimed Land,” “The River,” “Dams,” and “Wildlife.” “Trees” contains images such as a human-made swamp and a government-controlled forest fire. In “The Zoo,” Goin explains the process by which workers “build” rocks for the different exhibits. “Beaches” shows bulldozers pushing sand to restore the coasts and preserve tourism. The most startling illustration of “The Mine” is the one featured in Imaging a Shattering Earth, the Clifton-Morenci Pit, one of the largest mines in North America. It is therefore fitting that Goin resorted to a two-part panorama to represent its great scale. In the “Reclaimed Land” section of the book, Goin shows the roads humans have paved and the forests they have felled. “The River” shows the consequences of flooding, damming, and irrigating. More specifically, “Dams” shows many areas of low water and desert resulting from harnassed rivers. Finally, “Wildlife” is a collection of photographs showing the different ways people cause fluctuations in animal populations from different environments.

Overall the book argues that humans have a hand in every part of their environment. “While biodiversity and the preservation of habitat are noble goals, only when we comprehend and respect humanature will we evolve constructively as a species and begin to live again in harmony with the planet we so rightly call home" (Humanature, 22).

A Doubtful River

We tend to think of the west as a dry desert with cacti and tumbleweeds, bright sun and endless miles of sand. Today, this description is not that far from the truth, but in the past, Nevada’s Truckee River flowed through the west, bringing life to the people that lived all around its luscious shores. Winner of the 2000 Wilbur S. Shepperson Humanities Book Award, A Doubtful River gives an account of the Truckee River from the time when it overflowed into Pyramid and Winnemucca Lakes to the present. Over the years, its waters were diverted and parts of the river are now dried up.

The Truckee River runs through southern Nevada, close to Reno. It is the lifeline for almost 200,000 people—a number that has been increasing at a rate of about 8% per year. The users of this river come from all different backgrounds and utilize the Truckee for many different reasons. The city slickers of Reno use the Truckee as their main water supply, farmers and ranchers depend on the river for irrigation purposes, and the Paiute Indian Tribe has been living by the shores of Pyramid Lake for hundreds of years.Unfortunately, there is only so much that the river can handle. Over usage has taken its toll on the Truckee. The volume of water pushed by the currents of the river has been drastically reduced since 1906 when the Derby Dam was built. Since the creation of this dam, the Winnemucca Lake, once over 87 feet deep, has become a dried-up pit. Pyramid Lake has lost 45 feet of its shoreline. Droughts are constantly lurking near the river, and although the water becomes scarcer, more and more people demand to use the river. Many legal issues have arisen from these problems. Among the questions being asked are who has the right to use the river and for what purposes can this limited commodity be used.

Pollution has also caused problems. Shifting and decreasing volumes of water have caused excess sediment, clay, and “dirt” to pollute the Truckee. This may seem natural, but a change in the amount of sediment in a body of water can negatively affect the wildlife and even the people living around it. Thankfully, steps are being taken to correct this problem.

A Doubtful River has been an on-going project for nearly six years for photographers Peter Goin and Robert Dawson. Also collaborating to the work is essayist Mary Webb. Together they capture the present state of the Truckee River in pictures and words. The book’s intent is to bring awareness to the plight of the Truckee River, and to shed some light on the complexity of the issues surrounding it. As the authors put it, “We hope that this book can contribute to an understanding of the debate over this watershed's environmental and political future. We invite [you] the reader to consider how the culture of this arid land conceives of water, as a commodity, an abstract legal right rather than the most basic physical source of life” (A Doubtful River, 5).

Changing Mines in America

In their collaboration, Changing Mines in America, Peter Goin and C. Elizabeth Raymond combine prose and photography as they explore mines around America. Rather than addressing their subject matter as black or white, the authors examine diverse mining sites which present the subject from multiple angles. The focus is not merely on the history of mining and the ways in which it has altered American lives and landscapes, but on how man’s understandings of mining have evolved over time.

The eight mines examined in the book actually make up four pairs of sites which contrast each other. For example, the Mesabi Iron Range of Minnesota proudly advertises its “reclamation” of the environment at its post-mining site, while reclamation efforts in Wyoming Valley, PA, have been met with contention by locals who are proud of the desolate anthracite mines. To these descendents of immigrants, the barren hills of waste rock represent the hard labor of their forefathers, and a heritage they are unwilling to let go of.

An interesting, though disturbing, contrast is that while Karnes County, Texas, worries over the potential harmful effects of uranium (carcinogenic substance with high levels of radioactivity) mining, people in Jefferson County, Montana, have been making money by promoting radioactive mines as “Health Mines.” Despite Environmental Protection Agency warnings, people continue to go to these “Health Mines” to inhale the radon air which they believe cures symptoms of arthritis and bursitis.

Photographs of Bingham Canyon in Utah—a giant mine which can be seen from space—are astounding. The mine is over three-quarters of a mile in depth and two-and-a-half miles across, making it the “World’s Biggest Hole.” Despite its impact upon the environment, Bingham Canyon has, at least from a financial standpoint, been a profitable mine over the past century. On the contrary, Nevada’s Rawhide Mine, which has also been around for a long time and caused much environmental devastation, has only very recently proven financially viable.

The last two sites in Changing Mines in America compare two post-mining sites—Eagle Mountain in California and American Flat in Nevada. Eagle Mountain became a ghost town when the Kaiser Steel Company, which owned the mine, went bankrupt. A Kaiser subsidiary is currently attempting to transform the site into a landfill. The ruins of American Flat, which was inhabited and mined off and on for nearly 150 years, has become an eerie, yet somewhat beautiful, haunt of concrete remains stained in vulgar graffiti. Comstock Lode, owner of the American Flat mines, has considered building an amusement park on these ruins.

While the gray mounds surrounding abandoned mining sites may be viewed as remnants of industrial sin, mining is necessary for our survival. In fact, the average American consumption of newly mined minerals is over 47,000 pounds per person, per year. Without mining, there would be no fuel for our electricity, no gas for our cars, no copper pipes for our waterways, and no asphalt or concrete for our roads. Changing Mines in America concludes not with a condemnation against mining but with an encouragement to readers to “understand and appreciate, both the intricacy and the physical and social legacies of their [the products of mining’s] production.” (Changing, 182)

Selected Bibliography

Goin, Peter. Humanature. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

Goin, Peter, Robert Dawson, and Mary Webb. A Doubtful River. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2000.

Long, Jonathan. “Pre-Law Wastelands: Abandoned Mine Lands of Southern Illinois.” MFA thesis, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, 2003.

Olsen, Cadie. “Is the Truckee River Polluted?” California Environmental Protection Agency, 2000. Weblink.

Seger, Christina Rabe. "Book review of Changing Mines in America by Peter Goin and C. Elizabeth Raymond." Environmental History 10 (January 2005), Weblink.