David T. Hanson






critical quotes



Selected quotes on the work of David T. Hanson

“It is unfortunately supposable that some people will account for these photographic images as “abstract art,” or will see them as “beautiful shapes.” 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.

“The power of these photographs is in their terrifying, because undeniable, particularity. They are representations of bad art—if by art we mean the ways and products of human work. If some of these results look abstract—unidentifiable, or unlike anything we have seen before—that is because nobody foresaw, because nobody cared, what they would look like. They are the inevitable consequences of our habit of working without imagination and without affection.

“They prove that our large scale industrial projects are at once experimental, in the sense that we do not know what their consequences will be, and definitive because of the virtual permanence of these same consequences. And what we can see in these vandalized and perhaps irreparable landscapes we are obliged to understand as symbolic of what we cannot see: the steady seeping of poison into our world and our bodies.

“David Hanson’s art is here put forthrightly to the use of showing us what most of us, in fact, have not seen before, do not wish to see now, and yet must see if we are to save ourselves and our land from such work and such results. He has given us the topography of our open wounds.”

Wendell Berry

Writer and poet

Port Royal, Kentucky

“In the PR heyday of corporate greenwashing and the greening of the military, camouflaging the truth about ecological ruin can take many forms. But the most damning evidence cannot be hidden from the intrepid aerial photographer. 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.”

Andrew Ross

Director, American Studies Program

New York University

“As of now, we do not really have, in our present culture, any framework for morally, socially or ecologically responsible art; if we did, there would be a more genial context for the environmentally committed work that David T. Hanson is doing. Not that his photographs don’t stand the test of more conventional requirements. They are both technically impeccable and aesthetically compelling—highly realized art objects. But the real point is that they are also much more than this . . . because there is a great deal more at stake in these photographs, in my opinion. The history of Western industrial society’s assault on the earth and the devastation it has wrought are the subjects of Hanson’s aerial photographs. The images are harsh, distressing and terrible. . . . Hanson’s photographs of this ongoing drama are among the most powerful and disturbing images ever to be seen, perhaps because their eerie, abstract beauty almost seems to negate the sinister, hidden life which glimmers in them: landscape as Eros transformed into landscape as Thanatos. . . . What Hanson enables us to see (achieved, it should be said, at some considerable risk to his own person) is something that is normally hidden from our view: it is nothing less than the contamination and destruction of the earth’s ecology, a poisoning process which is now seriously out of control. Hanson has not only produced a unique body of photographs in the ordinary sense, but he has also given us an otherwise secret portrait of a landscape that has been ravaged, mined, drilled and drained of its natural resources. More than that, he has done an incredible amount of homework, since each of these sites has been documented fully concerning the scope and scale of contamination, the shoddy management practices of chemical and nuclear industries unwilling or unable to deal with their waste.

“In his book, The Dream of the Earth, geologian Thomas Berry claims that the confrontation between the industrial and the ecological is now the major issue of our time. Survival is at stake, and no other issue or prior struggle has ever been of this magnitude. Hanson’s work, as I perceive it, is at the very heart of this struggle, and for this reason, it is also at the cutting edge of what appears to be a new cultural coding necessary for the emerging ecological age. . . . As a morally and ecologically concerned artist, Hanson has transcended the old cultural values of individualism, patriarchy and consumerism; he is someone who values service, caring attitudes and the environment. “Most artists have political and social convictions,” states artist Hans Haacke, “but these often do not transpire in their work. The more you become aware of this schizophrenic separation, which is normally not perceived as such, the more you have to deal with this problem.” For Hanson, there is no schizophrenia; his political and social concerns are not separate from his artistic ones.”

Suzi Gablik

Art Historian and Critic

Blacksburg, Virginia

“The photographs of David Hanson’s Colstrip, Montana series are tragic documents that refuse to evoke an emotional response in the viewer. They belong to a contemporary genre that might be called “ecoscapes”—photographic studies of a despoiled world, from which humanity (in the form of human figures) seems to have withdrawn. . . . What is more disturbing to the viewer, however, is that [Hanson’s] synthetic wastelands, filtered through the prismatic lens of a gifted photographer’s camera, are often luminous in their beauty and mystery. . . . Colstrip, Montana begins with seemingly banal, unmediated images of tract housing and industrial sites as seen from the ground. . . . A single photograph suggests “spiritual life”—the altar of the First Baptist Church of Colstrip, sanitized, banal, and shadowless as a comic strip. . . . As Hanson’s images so subtly shift from the human perspective to the aerial, the photographs become, to my eye at least, increasingly beautiful and mysterious. . . . What is striking about David Hanson’s Colstrip, Montana photographs is that the brutally exploited landscape suggests a fate as impersonal as time, weather, erosion, or the tides of the sun and the moon. . . . A curious resignation emerges, as if from the very earth of Colstrip, Montana, itself. As the photographs ascend, intensifying in abstraction and beauty, they reveal the silence of infinity in the artifacts of an old, dead earth, abandoned for millenia. . . . Walt Whitman, whose great subject was America, the spiritual essence of America, would have wept at these incursions into nature even as (one supposes) he would have honored David Hanson’s brilliance and audacity in transforming such incursions into works of art. . . . How far we have come from the romanticized wilderness of the nineteenth century, and from the stylized photographs of Ansel Adams! David Hanson is a worthy successor to such visionaries, in these portraits of cultural anomie and loss, the Luminist images of our time”

Joyce Carol Oates


Princeton, New Jersey

“David T. Hanson’s extended documentation of the town, mine, and power plant of Colstrip, Montana is in its motives closer to the traditional concerns of documentary photography. Hanson sees his work as a meditation on a ravished landscape and on the meaning of “the machine in the garden.” It describes, without irony or exhortation, the current condition of a fragment of the earth’s surface. Hanson offers us, however, not one set of facts but two, one describing Colstrip from the ground, a place informed by the circumstantial, indeterminate particularity of temporary places; the other, made from the air, showing the terrible beauty of an unfamiliar and inhuman landscape. The two views challenge each other and the habit of mind that allows us to equate a sharp photograph with the truth.”

John Szarkowski

Former Director, Department of Photography

Museum of Modern Art, New York

“David T. Hanson has been photographing a mining region in Montana since 1982. The forty-five prints in this exhibition have been selected from a much larger group which includes interior as well as exterior views. A cursory inspection of them might suggest that they have been made in the astringent, rigorous mold established by such photographers as Lewis Baltz: that they represent an effort to be “purely documentary.” Certainly they are documentary to the extent that they give a broad, if necessarily selective, view of what this area looks like. But, in every aspect of his work, including composition, printing, selection of subject, point of view and editing, Hanson has made critical choices relative to both aesthetics and opinion. This is in no way an objective view of Colstrip, Montana. That many of the pictures are seductive—even beautiful—and that these qualities seem to collide with the information we are given in the titles is not serendipitous. Rather, it produces meanings which are personal, political, romantic, angry and even compassionate.”

William Jenkins

Former Curator of Photography

International Museum of Photography

Rochester, New York

“In the summer, intercontinental ballistic missile silos can seem almost pastoral. There are meadowlarks and sunflowers, and cattle sometimes graze right up to the fence. At another season, however, David T. Hanson saw a fist or a skull, and the bleaching of winter. . . . [Hanson’s Minuteman Missile Site #Kilo-11] is genuinely haunting. . . it simultaneously is what it is, but also suggests bleached bones after some violent incident long ago. . . . The pictures is, I think, an example of the most rigorous truth telling. . . . [Hanson] is able and willing to put us up against the terror. I don’t quite know how [he does] it, but I admire it.”

Robert Adams

Photographer and writer

Astoria, Oregon

“For David T. Hanson the strip mine and coal-fired generating plant in Colstrip, Montana, serve as both mirror and metaphor for the use, misuse, and abuse of power. The Colstrip photographs bid us to consider many contemporary issues: ecological awareness, the overconsumption of natural resources, the energy crisis, and environmental reclamation. Yet Hanson aspires to an even larger theme. His photographs chronicle entropy, revealing a society intent upon cannibalizing itself, other cultures, and the land. They are late twentieth-century landscapes, proof of the horrible error of nineteenth-century theoreticians who believed that the factory system that had brought hell to the old world would be redeemed in the new. Instead, the conquest of the virgin wilderness has become the rape of the land. . . . Hanson’s photographs suggest that nothing short of a miracle could restore the former ranchland at Colstrip to its original grazing capacity. The churned-up earth, hideous pits, opaque and contaminated ponds suggest an inhospitable world of little vegetation and no wildlife. . . . Hanson’s focus on Colstrip’s pits and infected ponds connotes the surfacing of the subterranean, the hellish, and the repressed. . . . [His] photographs seem to corroborate doom. Some of the most powerful were taken in the winter, season of death and discontent. But in any season, they are unremittingly bleak. . . . The photographs are eerie, unsettling elegies for a lost landscape. As Walter Benjamin wrote of Eugene Atget’s photographs, they have the stillness of a place after the scene of a crime. . . . Ultimately, the chill of Hanson’s pictures is part of their riveting fascination. Their formal aplomb recalls the idea of Jean Genet, the French playwright and former criminal, that evil and ugliness, when intensely heightened, become beautiful. . . . The Greek word for truth, aletheia, means “that which is not forgotten.” Hanson’s formal and metaphorical power assures our memory.”

Sally Eauclaire

Former Director

Museum of Contemporary Photography

Chicago, Illinois

“[David T.] Hanson, who grew up in Montana, is part of the great American landscape tradition that stretches from the Hudson River School of the 19th century to 20th-century photographers such as Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter. But he also has a fierce moral intelligence—one that compels him to look into America’s environmental heart of darkness and report back, whether we like it or not.”

Bill Van Siclen

Art Critic

Providence, Rhode Island

“Hanson’s complex text-and-image tryptich format [in his Waste Land series] analyzes specific histories through an approach that is conscious of the potential risks of documentary telling and representation. . . . The reports do not flinch from documenting, in a cool, bureaucratic tone, the ruin produced by an industrial/commercial and municipal disposal and ground water contamination, nor do they deny the obscene costs involved in the research that led to remedial treatment of the sites. Hanson comments on the emotional and psychic elisions in these solemn factual tellings by inserting the aerial photographs he has taken between the [E.P.A.] texts and topographical maps of the afflicted areas. These distant site reports attempt to supplement the official tellings with paradoxically abstract and even aesthetic views. Through the addition of his evidentiary images—which are both obscure and diverted—Hanson subtly and self-consciously questions the ability of the documentary mode adequately to comprehend all levels of the catastophic damage.”

Andrea Liss

Art critic, Afterimage

“The photos [in Waste Land] are ugliness personified, shocking, disgusting, obscene. Mr. Hanson has set out to show us through brutally frank, mostly aerial photography, what our industrial civilization has done to our land. The result is the opposite of pretty. . . . It is a powerful book, a deeply troubling book. It deserves a wide audience.”

Tom Turner

Editor, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund

San Francisco, California

“Can the seduction of beauty be used to arouse our social conscience? David T. Hanson’s Waste Land: Meditations on a Ravaged Landscape argues that it can. . . . Hanson’s images of industrial rape of our lands depicts the Machine as having wholly ruined the Garden. He knowingly anchors his images within maps and textual support that goes far to overcome the dilemma of producing either beauty or social critique. The book breaks down firm differences between the map and the territory, between sign and referent, a textual strategy Abigail Solomon–Godeau attributes to “New Documentary”. . . . The static either–beauty–or–social critique dilemma is refashioned as a dialectical flux between present and absent appearances in Hanson’s photographs: between what easily appears (formally seductive abstraction, a sign rooted in land abuse) and what doesn’t (ugliness, only envisioned by mental effort when one attends to the signs’ referents). Hanson’s superb book reflects both a commitment to artful seeing and hard-hitting social comment.”

James Hugunin

Art Critic and Professor of Critical Theory

The School of the Art Institute

Chicago, Illlinois

“As a military specialist, I am struck by David Hanson’s ability to express the implications of the U.S. nuclear infrastructure within an artistic context. I have no doubt as to the remarkable value of Hanson’s contribution to the field of art and photography. But it is the contemporary political contribution he makes to a fuller public awareness of a manmade yet unseen network which makes me one of his avid supporters. . . . Hanson’s photographic project The Nuclear Landscape, cuts through this enigma of military theory to the harsh reality of omnipresent offensive power. . . . The photographs carry an immediate impact which words alone cannot convey: his stark depictions of apparently ordinary places are in fact strange, revealing and disturbing. The responses generated by viewing one of Hanson’s landscapes are both instructive and emotional. Hanson compels his audience to take a brutally honest look at what man has brought to bear upon himself. The Nuclear Landscape series illustrates destructive power emanating from an innovative, creative people. It is this disparity—creation yielding to destruction—which lies at the heart of the nuclear dilemma and which Hanson so adroitly captures in his photographs.”

William M. Arkin

Former Director, National Security Program

Institute for Policy Studies

Washington, D.C.

“Art, history, science, and ethics come together in Colstrip, Montana (Taverner Press), a groundbreaking collection of photographs of one of the largest open-pit coal mines in North America. Taken in the early 1980s, David Hanson’s haunting aerial images reveal the dramatic changes to the wider landscape. Critics hailed his work, and a new generation of landscape photographers drew inspiration.”

The Christian Science Monitor

(January 17, 2011)

“Exquisite photos . . . They are incredible and tell a real important story. David Hanson is a great photographer.”

David Lynch


Los Angeles, California

“If you could buy only a handful of photography books, I suggest this should be one of them. It is one to keep, to read, to study, to put in your school’s library, to put on your bookshelf and take down at that right moment to share with students and friends who care deeply about the dark beauty of photography. The book itself is an exquisite physical object, one that needs to be experienced in living, sooty color.”

Berkley Hudson


Columbia, Missouri