Using Lake Tahoe photographs to blend art and science

Peter Goin has been using his photographs and those of others to research the visual history of Lake Tahoe for 25 years.

8/14/2013 - By: Deanna Hearn
Lake Tahoe

Most artists don't think about using their work in a scientific way, but Peter Goin does. As a Foundation Professor of Art in Photography/Videography, Goin is also the chair of the Department of Art at the University of Nevada, Reno. He's been using his photographs and those of others to research the visual history of Lake Tahoe for 25 years. Six of Goin's photographs will be on display at the Tahoe Summit on Aug. 19 at Sand Harbor in the Tahoe Science Consortium booth as a sample of his photographic research.

Published in 1992, Stopping Time: A Rephotographic Survey of Lake Tahoe is one of Goin's 16 books. He uses a variety of 19th century photographs and more than 50 comparative photographs to document how the Tahoe Basin landscape evolved over time.

"That project really started a process of looking at the Tahoe Basin more critically," Goin said. "I realized the fundamental problems in the basin are really a microcosm of a larger ecological picture. Lake Tahoe is like the canary - gentle, fragile and beautiful - that serves as an early warning sign. If the canary goes, how much longer before we go? My work at Tahoe is about the integrity of the ecological environment in which we live. This is our world, where our health is woven together with biotic communities in a shared environment, and it is so clearly evident at Tahoe."

This summer Goin and Scott Hinton, the department's coordinator of photographic research, have been rephotographing the 1916 shoreline survey done by H.T. Cowling at Stateline on the California side of the lake. Cowling's 150 photographs showed conditions on the shores of the lake with the water at its maximum level and helped property owners present their complaints about the lake's elevation. Reclamation officers were also able to use the photographs to explain the purpose and intentions of the government to regulate the lake.

"It's quite surprising how different the shoreline is today than it was 97 years ago," Goin said. "People look at Tahoe and assume it's the same, but it's not. There are places where the beach is different, creeks enter the lake at different locations and the shorelines have been mediated by property owners.

"Once the heavy logging industry ceased, I had expected to find the shoreline more stable, but it has been difficult to find images that have the exact same shoreline. For example, there is a huge boulder visible in 1916 that is no longer there. Why was it moved? There's a story behind that since it was a decisive act to move a boulder that weighs tons."

According to Goin, he and Hinton are using the rephotographic images of Lake Tahoe to educate people on its environmental history, culture, water management and the value of a natural resource such as Lake Tahoe.

"People are so aware of Tahoe landscapes, but artists are often seduced by the beauty of the lake. They fail to look behind the beauty into the complexity and history of the landscape," Goin explained, which is why he has tackled a major project to build a comprehensive archive of photographs. Working in collaboration with donors, the archive will ultimately build the public record and make the photographs accessible to anyone in the scientific community as well as the general public.

"The visual history of Tahoe precedes scientific research at the lake by some 60 years," Goin said. "Within this broad range of time, there are some important visual images of the pre-scientific era of Tahoe."

As the photographs keep streaming in from private collectors, Goin and his small crew of paid and volunteer students continue to scan and catalog the images. From the ever-expanding archive come a number of Goin's publications.

"The books serve as a conversation, a way to do focused study," Goin said. "They allow me to do serious research, particularly on the comprehensive visual history of Lake Tahoe."

Goin and his current coauthor, University Geography Department Chair Paul F. Starrs who teaches cultural and historical geography, have been working for a number of years to produce a large, significant environmental history of Lake Tahoe from 1957 to modern day. They hope the book, which is about two years out, will have the contemporary stature of E. B. Scott's two-volume pictorial history published in 1957, "Saga of Lake Tahoe," that traces Tahoe's development from 1857 to 1957.
Yet another element of Goin's research is a photographic look at the changes in the landscape after the 2007 Angora fire southwest of South Lake Tahoe. Now in its sixth year, the study will cover 10 years of photographing 10 specific sites. Hinton is also working on this project.

A number of other books are in the works for Goin including a much larger rephotographic history of Lake Tahoe, a richly illustrated book designed to create a contemporary photographic view that is very close to the historical view. It will include his rephotographic images of the 1916 shoreline.

"I'm trying to find the same or relatively similar vantage point for the historical camera and standardizing my photographs so, in the future, if someone wants to go back, they can exactly duplicate the images," Goin said.

The University has honored Goin as the 2013 Outstanding Undergraduate Research Faculty Mentor and the 2007 Outstanding Researcher of the Year.


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