Back up and look
Stand back. Everything looks different from a distance. The land, for example. History. Human nature. Now back up even farther. Look from a wide enough angle, and whatever you think you know for sure can begin to dissolve into a list of questions.
Documentary photographer and cultural critic Peter Goin makes it his business to look closely at how things work, especially how people interact with the land—and with each other. He likes to think about the natural and cultural forces that make things the way they are.
Goin looks relaxed in a baseball hat and talks fast as he prepares for the fall semester. To someone passing by his office, next door to the University of Nevada, Reno’s photography lab, the pace of his meandering phrases might make him sound like a victim of over-caffeination, but he’s making perfect sense. As an art professor, he’s obviously used to diagramming complex points off the cuff, laying out layers and grids of questions, coming at an issue from several angles at once. He’s paid a lot of attention to the world, and he has a lot to say.
He sets up a documentary project (which may ultimately become a book, a group of prints to travel to museums, or both) by starting with a question.
“Why do we have green grass?” he asks. Right off, it sounds like it could be a small question, in a wistful, philosophical way. But if you couch it in political or practical terms (or perhaps in terms that suggests the impolitic or impractical), a floodgate opens, unleashing an endless list of questions. Of the what-does-it-all-mean variety.
“I mean, why do we live in this arid environment and have green grass? What’s the purpose?” In the photo series (also a book) A Doubtful River, Goin joins in the tradition of Western landscape photographers who examine how and why water is used in the West, especially in the desert. The Truckee River is a prime example. Goin’s pictures show that the river’s been used (and physically reshaped) to serve various economic, political and recreational interests.
The question, “What happens when you detonate a nuclear bomb?” led him to Area 12 to find out, then to other nuclear test sites around the globe. He photographed a bomb-made crater near Yucca Flat and a decaying 1954 University of California nuclear bunker in Bikini Atoll. He’s also spent time photographing various other human impositions on the earth, including just about any place people are interacting with natural resources: the Mexican-American border, Lake Tahoe, tourist attractions and various mining operations.
And, of course, the visually and culturally ripe Black Rock Desert. Goin has photographed there extensively. He’s also made an Emmy-award-nominated video, In Search of Ritual: The Burning Man, which has aired on PBS.
After observing and photographing what always turn out to be complex situations, Goin doesn’t draw simple conclusions.
Instead, he says, “It’s about trying to come to terms, using the language of the fine arts, come to some understanding of these places in which we live.”
He’s a Midwesterner by birth but spent his childhood in Indonesia, Turkey and Brazil—his father was a diplomat—and came back to the United States as a teenager.
“I’m from nowhere, originally,” he says. “That’s probably why I’m a cultural critic.”