Art review: ‘American Vesuvius’ at Cleveland Museum of Art

By Dorothy Shinn
Beacon Journal art and architecture critic

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Inside Mount St. Helens cater, base of lava dome on the left, 1983. Frank Gohlke (American, born 1942). Gelatin silver print; 45.30 x 55.90 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of museum members in 1989.

Since the photograph above this review is a dead giveaway, we won’t test your patience by asking whether you remember what happened 33 years ago Saturday at 8:32 a.m. PDT.

That was the moment Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980.

A volcano in the Cascade Range, in the Pacific Ring of Fire that includes more than 160 active volcanoes, Mount St. Helens was the most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States: 57 people were killed, and 250 homes, 47 bridges, 15 miles of railways and 85 miles of highway were destroyed, along with great numbers of wildlife. Hundreds of square miles were reduced to wasteland, causing over a billion dollars in damage, more than 2 billion in 2011 dollars.

Mount St. Helens blew up with a force 20,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb, triggering the world’s largest-known landslide. Its blast wave (pyroclastic flow) sped down its north slope at the speed of sound, flattening forests and sending 600 tons of ash into the atmosphere. The eruption column rose 80,000 feet into the atmosphere, spewing ash across 11 U.S. states.

Simultaneously, snow, ice and glaciers on the volcano melted, forming a series of large volcanic mudslides that reached as far as the Columbia River, some 50 miles away. It’s the only significant volcanic event in the contiguous United States since the 1915 eruption of Lassen Peak in California.

Through June 2, the Cleveland Museum of Art exhibits American Vesuvius: The Aftermath of Mount St. Helens by Frank Gohlke and Emmet Gowin.

The exhibit, combining two important photographic series by two innovative, influential practitioners of landscape photography, working independently, reveals nature’s shocking transformation of the mountain and surrounding countryside. In turn, the experience of photographing Mount St. Helens altered the mindsets of these two men and the course of their art.

Because access to the mountain was initially limited to flyovers, both photo­graphers first took to the air to investigate the transformed landscape. It was Gowin’s first experience with aerial photography, a practice that would soon become central to his landscape work. He made several trips to the mountain between 1980 and 1986. Gohlke visited numerous times between 1981 and 1990, and his photographs testify to the volcano’s destructive force and the land’s rebirth.

“Emmet was already in the Pacific Northwest, so he got there first,” said Barbara Tannenbaum, organizing curator and the museum’s curator of photography. “Of course, access was hard to come by. You couldn’t just walk in; you had to get permission from the park service.”

American Vesuvius is the first time that in-depth selections from Gowin and Gohlke’s Mount St. Helens images have been together in a single exhibition, including nine never-before-seen Gowin images. Visitors can compare and contrast the work of these eminent photographers while exploring the destruction, then regeneration, of Mount St. Helens.

Among the similarities are their disorienting views of the volcano from the air. We can’t decipher north from south, and it’s also difficult to tell up from down, as the slope of the images is often distorted by our viewpoint, especially in Gowin’s images.

Gohlke, on the other hand, seems to be at pains to show us which way we’re looking, to orient us by use of distance, edges or atmospherics.

“He actually tells you where you are looking from,” Tannenbaum agreed. “And he did shoot some color images, but he hasn’t shown a lot of that.”

Visitors should not be disappointed that there’s no color photography. The aftermath of a volcanic eruption has little color. It’s a grisaille, all blacks, whites and grays.

“When you think of a volcanic eruption, you think of reds, but really it’s all about ash,” Tannenbaum said. “The aftermath is gray. What we need to do, then, is look at all that gray, look at the destruction, the vastness in scale, the total disorientation of our senses, the total lack of color.”

Gowin began his career by photographing his wife and family, and continued to do so until the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Since he had to fly over it, from that moment he became fascinated with aerial photographs, once noting that he liked the view of “what the Gods see.”

“For Frank Gohlke it was the second time doing it, and he went back over a period of 10 years, and he did a lot of hiking on the ground,” Tannenbaum noted. “Gohlke has another theme, which was not only the destruction wrought by the volcano, but the destruction wrought by the clear-cutting.”

You really have to look at these in detail, because in one image will be trees downed by the volcano and the clearing of those trees, and in another will be a clearing with life returning.

“Gowin’s work is about photography and how we orient ourselves to the world, what happens to landscape photography when it becomes aerial. Gohlke’s images are all about that cycle and he comes back to see that regrowth,” Tannenbaum said.

As fans of PBS or Smithsonian channels will tell you, the Mount St. Helens dome is also recycling, swelling once more with the heat and gases beneath, signaling to all that she’s not done yet.

Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or

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