An ‘artifice’ of natural wonder: Peter Goin’s new of book of photos documents the evolution of Tahoe’s landscape

The undeveloped portions of Lake Tahoe may appear to be enclaves of pristine nature, as wild and unchanging as they were during the thousands of years when bands of the Washoe people spent their summers on its shores and fished in its crystal-clear water. 

But what we see around the lake today is an artifice, a reproduction that tries to be as faithful to the original as possible. Tahoe’s multifaceted landscape—at once a reservoir, a resort and scenic stage for mansions, cabins, casinos and alpine experiences—tells a story of massive human intervention that began 160 years ago. 

“It is increasingly clear that our collective role in that landscape is rarely passive. Nature at Lake Tahoe is firmly within human grasp,” wrote Peter Goin, a Reno photographer and author, in the introduction to his new book, Lake Tahoe: A Rephotographic History

Photo/David Robert

The large-format volume, published by the University of New Mexico Press, displays then-and-now photographs on nearly all of its 418 pages. The historic images—of the lake, lakeshore and nearby environs, including the town of Truckee, Calif., and the smaller lakes near Tahoe—were taken between 1862 and the 1960s. Goin tracked down these historic photos and searched for the spots they were taken. From 2009 to 2022, he and his team did the best they could to duplicate the views. Often, they were able to position their cameras in the place where the original photographers snapped their shutters. 

They re-photographed, in color, images from the shore, forest, a light plane and a small boat. “So many of the (historic) photographs were shot from the water,” Goin said.  

This former grazing field in Tahoe Vista, is now a meadow designated for the Old Brockway Golf Course. Environmental remediation at Lake Tahoe has been ongoing since the late 20th century. Efforts escalated after the first Lake Tahoe Summit in 1997, when President Bill Clinton’s attendance focused federal attention on the area. Photo/Courtesy of North Lake Tahoe Historical Society
Livestock grazing is no longer permitted within 100 feet of a stream environment zone. Photo/Peter Goin

In order to compensate for the diminished lake level over time, a few photos were shot from a step ladder balanced on the boat. “Often the historic photos were taken three feet higher on the water, which will change the relationship of the background to the foreground,” Goin explained. “Shooting from a ladder on a small boat was pretty hilarious—and mildly insane.”  

Trees now obscure some of the horizons seen in the historic photographs. Goin noted that visitors often assume the forests around Tahoe are pristine, but many areas were clear-cut in the 1800s to supply timber for Virginia City mines and structures. “What we see today are second- and third-growth forests,” Goin said. “People may say, ‘Oh, it’s all recovered,’ but it’s a monoculture—a few species of trees that are roughly the same age. That makes Tahoe a tinderbox when it comes to wildfire.” 

The locations documented in the book range from the Desolation Wilderness to Cascade Lake, along Emerald and Rubicon bays, to the communities of Glenbrook and Stateline. The side-by-side images tell a tale of change over time, lost memories and Tahoe’s evolving sense of place. 

Some of the historic structures remain. But in others, buildings, piers, boathouses, resort cabins and other structures have vanished. One pair of photos documents a railroad bridge that spanned the Truckee River 100 years ago. Today, there is no trace of it.  

“So many of the areas have gone through dramatic changes,” Goin said. “… This (book) is the most complete compendium of a visual survey of Tahoe that’s ever been done.”  

Lake Tahoe: A Rephotographic History is available at Sundance Books and Music in Reno. Its retail price of $45 is discounted, Goin said, thanks to grants and donations that subsidized printing costs. It won’t be reprinted, he noted, so “it’s already a collectors’ item.” 

Goin, who began photographing Lake Tahoe in the 1980s, said he never tires of visiting the lake and aiming his lenses at the big water, the shoreline, the forests and the peaks that surround what is often called the “Jewel of the Sierra.”  

“Tahoe has always been one of the most amazing landscape spectacles in the West, if not the world,” he said.  

Goin’s photographs have been exhibited in more than 50 museums nationally and internationally. His previous books include: Tracing the Line: A Photographic Survey of the Mexican-American Border; Nuclear Landscapes; A Doubtful River; Nevada Rock Art; and A New Form of Beauty: Glen Canyon Beyond Climate Change.  

Goin, a foundation professor of art at the University of Nevada, Reno, is a recipient of the Nevada governor’s Millennium Award for Excellence in the Arts and multiple awards from the National Endowment for the Arts.