The past two centuries of industry have scarred the American landscape, leaving polluted wounds that may never heal. Superfund sites, areas designated by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as needing long-term clean up, are spread across the country, from 19th-century mines and wood-processing plants, to nerve gas disposal areas and nuclear weapons manufacturing. They are in secluded rural areas, and in cities right next to homes and businesses.
In 1985, photographer David T. Hanson received a Guggenheim Fellowship to travel to 67 Superfund sites in 45 states. His aerial photographs capture the terrible ravages to the earth by hazardous waste that are often hard to perceive from the ground. For the first time, the series is published in its entirety in David T. Hanson: Waste Land, released by Taverner Press.
“I do feel that although these photographs were made over 30 years ago, they seem even more relevant today, given our growing concerns about energy production, environmental degradation, and climate change, and given the current administration’s broad dismantling of the Environmental Protection Agency, environmental regulations, and Superfund,” Hanson told Hyperallergic.
Taverner Press also recently published Hanson’s Colstrip, Montana (2010) with his 1980s photographs of one of North America’s largest coal strip mines located in his home state, and Wilderness to Wasteland (2016). For the Waste Land series, he aimed to photograph a broad range of waste. Smelters, mines, and dumping sites fill the frame with their sprawling sludge and industrial structures, giving the impression that they are an infection consuming the world. The aerial views — taken from airplanes in a pre-drone era — contextualize the sites’ relationships to the communities and environments around them.
“A viewer could easily dismiss one or two photographs from the series, however dramatic those images might be, as a rare and isolated situation in a remote location,” Hanson stated. “But when all 67 of the Superfund sites in my Waste Land series are seen together, they begin to have a cumulative effect.”
Abandoned homes fill a shot of Times Beach, Missouri, which became a ghost town after 1970s contamination by dioxin that was used in a spray that controlled dust on unpaved roads. Rusty scratches appear on ground by the Anaconda Co. copper smelter in Anaconda, Montana, while snowy peaks of waste loom at the Atlas Asbestos Mine in Fresno County, California. The coal tar distillation and wood preserving Reilly Tar & Chemical Corp. plant in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, borders neat rows of houses, a proximity that would be difficult to convey in an eye-level photograph. Similarly, the burial site for 18 million gallons of industrial waste in Criner, Oklahoma, might just look like another field off a country road, yet overhead its scope is revealed.
These images are joined by topographic maps and texts from the EPA on the locations’ history and the actions taken, or not. In many of them, responsibility has been evaded, and cleanup still stalled. Hanson has not revisited the sites, but few have been removed from the Superfund list. The use of these triptychs keeps the photographs from being interpreted as anything other than what they are, especially important as some border on the beautiful, such as Montana’s Silver Bow Creek on the cover. Light blue water pools through a salty plain, a deceptively ethereal vision for a place that has been poisoned by a century of industrial, agricultural, and municipal waste.
“It is unfortunately supposable that some people will account for these photographic images as ‘abstract art,’ or will see them as ‘beautiful shapes,’” writes author Wendell Berry in a book foreword. “But anybody who troubles to identify in these pictures the things that are readily identifiable (trees, buildings, roads, vehicles, etc.) will see that nothing in them is abstract and that their common subject is a monstrous ugliness.”