David T. Hanson






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Late Twentieth-Century Landscapes
David T. Hanson

Since the early 1980s, my photographic work and mixed-media installations have investigated the contemporary American landscape as it reflects our culture and its most constructive and destructive energies. These works explore a broad range of American environments, from mines and power plants to military installations, hazardous waste sites, and industrial and agricultural landscapes, examining the relationship of humans with their environment in the late twentieth century. Beginning with the series Colstrip, Montana, and  continuing through Minuteman Missile Sites,Waste Land, and “The Treasure State”: Montana 1889–1989, these four bodies of work begin to reveal an entire pattern of terrain transformed by human beings to serve their needs. They become, finally, meditations on a ravaged landscape.

Focusing on the region where I grew up, Colstrip, Montana (1982–85) is an extended study of one of the largest coal strip mines in North America, its coal-fired power plant, and the modern-day factory town that it surrounds. The town of Colstrip was established in 1923 on top of some of the richest coal reserves in the world when the Northern Pacific Railroad began mining coal there for its steam locomotives. In 1959, Northern Pacific (having switched from steam power to diesel) sold the coal leases, mines, and townsite to the Montana Power Company.  During the late 1960s and ’70s, as more stringent federal air-quality control laws were passed and as nationwide demand for cleaner low-sulfur coal increased, Montana Power expanded the mine for its own coal needs as well as for sales to utility companies in the Midwest. Following the national energy crises of the early 1970s, Montana Power built a coal-fired electrical generating plant.  At the peak of its production in the mid 1980s, the Colstrip mine produced 16 million tons of coal per year, half of it consumed by the power plant and the rest shipped to Minnesota and Wisconsin utilities.1 Currently the largest generating power station west of the Mississippi, the Colstrip plant produces twice as much electrical energy as is consumed by the entire state of Montana. The plant is primarily owned by Washington and Oregon utilities, and two-thirds of its output is sent across thousands of miles of wires to light up Seattle, Portland, and even Los Angeles.

A sequence of 66 color photographs, Colstrip, Montana begins with images of the company houses and trailer parks, followed by photographs of the mine, power plant, industrial site and surrounding land. The series ends with aerial views of the site and the ever-widening circle of devastation radiating from what Montana Power advertises as a “carefully planned, award winning community.”

As my work evolved, the aerial view increasingly seemed to be the most appropriate form of representation for the late twentieth-century landscape: an abstracted and distanced technological view of the earth, mirroring the military’s applications of aerial photography for surveillance and targeting. The aerial view realizes the Cartesian rationalization and abstraction of space that has preoccupied Western culture and visual art for the past 300 years. It delivers with military efficiency a contemporary version of the omniscient gaze of the Panopticon, the nineteenth century’s ultimate tool for surveillance and control. The aerial perspective also allows for the framing of relationships between objects that may seem unrelated on the ground, and it permits access to sites with security restrictions. What otherwise cannot be pictured becomes available to the camera.

Minuteman Missile Sites (1984–85) examines more closely the industrial and military landscape in my native region through a series of aerial photographs of intercontinental ballistic missile silos and launch control facilities in the American West. When this work was completed, there were over 1,000 Minuteman silos spread across 80,000 square miles in eight states, each silo containing a nuclear missile nearly a hundred times as powerful as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.2 Aerial views of targeted terrain, these images reveal some of America’s “secret landscapes.” These anonymous but deadly constructions hidden within the pastoral agricultural landscape of the High Plains form a complex, interconnected grid, and constitute one of the major capital investments of our culture. Some of these missile sites have recently been “retired” and destroyed as a result of changing post–Cold War geopolitics. Our 50–year old nuclear era, a very brief moment in geological time, will leave a legacy of nuclear waste that will last for hundreds of thousands of years.

Waste Land (1985–86) is a study of hazardous waste sites throughout the United States, and it encompasses a wider range of American landscapes. In 1985, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List (“Superfund”) consisted of 782 sites that were considered the most dangerous of over 400,000 hazardous sites throughout the country. From those, I selected 67 sites that represented a cross-section of American geography and industrial waste activities. Again I used aerial photography to gain access to high-security areas and to contextualize the sites within their larger surrounding landscapes, as well as to minimize my own exposure to these highly toxic environments. Waste Land includes nineteenth-century mines, smelters, and wood-processing plants, landfills and illicit dumps, large petrochemical complexes, aerospace water-contamination sites, nuclear weapons plants, and nerve gas disposal areas. I sequenced the sites according to EPA’s Hazard Ranking System, beginning with the federal facilities. They are located in urban, industrial, residential, agricultural, and rural areas. In some cases, the waste problems are dramatically evident, and in others they are invisible, concealed beneath suburban developments or industrial and military installations.

To provide a context and history for each Waste Land site, I employed a triptych format incorporating three different methods of site description: my aerial photograph; a U.S. Geological Survey topographic map that I modified to indicate the site as defined by EPA within its surrounding environment; and an EPA text that details the history of the site, its hazards, and the remedial action taken. Each EPA text dates from the time when the site was proposed for Superfund listing. These texts illustrate the mechanics of the bureaucracy that oversees and regulates hazardous waste in the United States; they also reveal some of the elaborate legal strategies used by individuals and companies to postpone or evade financial responsibility for the contamination and cleanup. Rarely, however, do the EPA texts’ cool bureaucratic language touch on the sites’ economic, political, and social costs or the tremendous toll they have taken in human lives and suffering. 

Of the 67 sites included in Waste Land, only seven have been removed from the Superfund in the past ten years—all of these either for technical reasons or because the sites were small and the contamination relatively simple to address. Since 1980, only 132 of the current total of 1259 sites have been removed from Superfund, while many remain essentially unchanged, pending litigation or environmental studies regarding feasible solutions. In reality none of these places will ever be fully reclaimed or returned to their original condition. Their “cleanup” merely amounts to emergency removal, stabilization, and long-term containment. Often the “cleanup” entails writing off the primary ecological problems as either insoluble or too expensive to consider.3 Many sites present problems for which there are no known solutions; others will require years of complex remedial investigations and feasibility studies. A substantial number of sites for which solutions have been determined remain virtually untouched, awaiting the allocation of necessary cleanup funds. Many of the individuals and companies responsible for the contamination have used bankruptcy laws or a variety of other legal maneuvers to avoid paying for the cleanup, thus shifting the financial burden to the American taxpayer.

The Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Denver provides a particularly disconcerting example of the “creative,” cost-effective solutions that the new “green” military is finding for the enormous cleanups it faces. The manufacture and subsequent demilitarizing and disposing of mustard gas, nerve gas, other chemical weapons, and conventional munitions (in addition to extensive pesticide manufacturing and disposal) have extensively contaminated the Arsenal, which has often been labeled “the most polluted site on Earth.” In 1992, Congress officially designated the area as the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.  The Arsenal has used its new status for strategic public relations effect, including tours for grade-school children bused in from the Denver area to experience firsthand this “historic native grasslands and wildlife refuge” (complete with a Rocky Mountain Arsenal Coloring Book).

“The Treasure State”: Montana 1889–1989 is a personal response to the state’s centennial celebration: “100 Years of Progress in Montana.” This series (1991–93) is a study of land use in Montana, examining the primary economic and industrial forces that have shaped and radically altered the state’s environment. I photographed farms and cattle feed lots, timber clear-cuts and paper mills, mines and smelters, military bases, the oil and gas industries, industrial waste sites, railroads and airports, hydroelectric dams, urban and suburban environments, and tourist recreation areas. Each site is paired with one of Montana’s imperiled wildlife species that have been impacted by it. The Latin and common names of the species have been etched onto the glass covering the print. Under a gallery spotlight, the etched text is projected onto the recessed print below, casting a kind of “ghost shadow” of the name onto the photograph. The works are sequenced by the species’ name, alphabetically within taxonomic class. The correspondences between sites and species are in most cases direct and documented: for example, the siltation and contamination of streams by logging and paper mills have severely impacted the bull trout, and the damming of major regional rivers like the Missouri and Big Horn has destroyed the breeding habitat for several bird species and disrupted the spawning of pallid sturgeon and other native fish. In some cases the correspondences are more broadly representative of the toll taken on native wildlife and habitat by increasing agriculture, industry, human population and tourism. All of the animals included in this series have been heavily impacted by human activities; their numbers have declined significantly, and they are now vulnerable to extinction. Most of them are officially listed as endangered, threatened, or candidates for listing; some of them are already extirpated. All that remains are their names, faint traces evoking those that have disappeared.

One recent incident underscores the dangers that Montana’s industrial environment currently poses to native species. In November 1995, a flock of snow geese migrating from the Arctic to California stopped over in Butte. Unfortunately, they landed in the Berkeley Pit, the world’s largest toxic pond, filled with 28 billion gallons of highly poisonous mine wastes. Within the next two days, 342 snow geese were found dead in the lake, all of them poisoned and internally burned.  Surrounded by one of the largest open-pit copper mines in the world, Butte is a part of the biggest Superfund hazardous waste site in the United States. Wastes from 130 years of gold and copper mining and smelting have heavily polluted the neighboring hillsides, grasslands, and 100 miles of the Clark Fork River. Instead of lush mountain valleys and pristine creeks and rivers with abundant wetlands and rich aquatic life, we are left with a barren wasteland, frequent fish kills, toxic dust storms, and the carcasses of snow geese floating in a sulfurous, poisoned pit.


  1. The Colstrip mine currently produces about 10 million tons of coal per year. Since the mines first opened in 1923, approximately 350 million tons of coal have been dug up. The coal seam at Colstrip is part of the Fort Union Formation, which has almost 50 billion tons of coal left that are strip-mineable. The place that is now Colstrip was originally part of the tribal land of the Crow, who called it both “Where The Enemy Camp” and “Where The Colts Died.”
  2. The first Minuteman 1 missiles became operational in October of 1962, in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis (when the American public first saw aerial photographic “evidence” of Soviet activities). The yield of the Minuteman missiles varies from 60–200 times that of the Hiroshima bomb, which had a yield of 23 kilotons.
  3. For more than a century, Butte, Montana was known as “The Richest Hill on Earth.” The cleanup of the vast Superfund site created there will cost an estimated $1 billion. But it will exclude the most serious environmental problems, which have been determined to be economically unfeasible or impossible to solve (including a $7–10 billion cleanup of an extensive bedrock and aquifer system that is permanently contaminated). Environmental engineers have estimated that fully reclaiming the Butte site to its original condition, were this even possible, would cost far more than the total mining revenues ever generated there.
© David T. Hanson 1997