In 1980, the U.S. Environmental Projection Agency created the Superfund program to address the catastrophic problem of toxic waste sites. Studying some 400,000 contaminated sites throughout the country, the EPA identified 400 highly hazardous sites in dire shape that were wreaking ecological disaster on a poisoned landscape.
With the support of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1985, American photographer David T. Hanson traveled to 67 Superfund sites across 45 states that represented a cross section of industries whose practices have decimated the environment. Now, the full series has been published for the first time in Waste Land (Taverner Press, September 2018).
American artists have long documented the landscape as a space of freedom, heroism, and grandeur — but, as Hanson’s work reveals, things have radically changed. Over a year-long period, he visited nuclear weapons plants, nerve gas disposal areas, petrochemical complexes, water contamination sites, wood-processing plants, mines, smelters, landfills, and illicit dumps, creating a series of photographs that expose the transformation of the American landscape by our increasingly industrialized and militarized culture.
Hanson’s aerial photographs survey the scenes of industrial crimes, from waste ponds leaking into local streams and rivers to a dirt road in the woods that companies used for midnight dumping. In the words of sociologist Andrew Ross, “Hanson’s ‘Waste Land’ series is a “stunning documentary of a century of organized state terrorism against the North American land, its species, and its peoples.”
The sites in Hanson’s book are sequenced according to the EPA’s hazard ranking system. Each location is presented in a triptych format, with an aerial photograph by Hanson, a modified U.S. Geological Survey topographic map, and a contemporaneous U.S. Environmental Protection Agency site description detailing the site’s history and hazards, as well as the remedial action taken — or not, as some entries reveal the elaborate legal strategies used to avoid responsibility for both the contamination and the cleanup.
Born and raised in Montana, Hanson is one of the most critically acclaimed photographers of our time. When his photographs of Colstrip, Mont., a coal mining town, were first exhibited by John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1986, the work signaled a shift from the cool modernism of the new topographies and questioned the belief in a “triumphant march of civilization” across the U.S.
Waste Land is Hanson’s third book in a trilogy that began with Colstrip, Montana and Wilderness to Wasteland (Taverner Press, 2010 and 2016), which document some of the most enduring monuments in Western civilization. Rather than iconic sites such as Stonehenge or the Nazca Lines, the most enduring legacy of the U.S. will be the hazardous remains of industry and technology, permanently etched into the land. For example, the radioactive contamination from American plutonium factories will remain deadly for the next 250,000 years — 10,000 generations, which is far longer than homo sapiens have been in existence.
Waste Land is a haunting meditation on a ravaged landscape. Although the photographs were made in the 1980s, they seem even more relevant today given growing concerns about energy production, environmental degradation, and climate change. In the words of poet Wendell Berry, “[Hanson] has given us the topography of our open wounds.”
Photography by David T. Hanson