Book Review: Wilderness to Wasteland by David T. Hanson

Ft. Worth-Dallas Club, next to the Pantex nuclear weapons plant, Carson County, Texas, 1985.

Ft. Worth-Dallas Club, next to the Pantex nuclear weapons plant, Carson County, Texas, 1985.

I approach this book by looking at the pictures. And, while “knowing” that what my eyes are showing me happens to be wasteland (the title, after all, says: Wilderness to Wasteland), I assume I shouldn’t be pleased by what I’m looking at … but I am, I like these pictures, and feel attracted to them. For wasteland can of course look beautiful.

But is beautiful the right word? I’m not sure. The scenes depicted I have seen before. Similar scenes, I mean, not such pin sharp photographs. Moreover, never before had I taken the time to look at such images as intensely as I do this time for I’m wondering: Does knowing that I’m looking at wasteland make me see wasteland? Mostly, I’m imagining it.

When trying to decide what three pictures I should select to illustrate this review – not an easy task for I felt attracted to most of the photographs in this exquisitely done tome – , the first I chose was the one on the cover (and that can also be found in the book). It was an instinctive choice, the scene depicted looked familiar, it reminded me of Southern California. And, it is, as I learned from the caption: “Interstate 15 near Barstow, California.”

Edge of Atomic City, Idaho, 1986

Edge of Atomic City, Idaho, 1986

I had once travelled on this interstate and spent a night in Barstow and so, naturally, my mind wandered to that trip of some years ago and produced a variety of pictures that took me away from Barstow and Interstate 15 to what I recall as vast and wild territory on the way to Marta Becket’s Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction.

“I see only what I know,” Goethe said. Or, differently put, I see in a picture what I bring to it.Still, even knowing that I’m looking at poisoned earth I often do see beauty. So what can a photographer do if (s)he wants to make me become aware that the beauty that I’m seeing is fooling me into probably believing that everything’s fine?

There are, as I see it, basically two possibilities: a) providing information that accompany the pictures; b) selecting sites that make viewers pause and, hopefully, ask questions.

David Hanson does both. And, he does more. By combining photographs that quite obviously show non-natural environments (for example, an abandoned uranium mine, a nuclear power plant) with photographs that, at first glance, seem not to show anything of particular significance (the above mentioned Interstate 15 near Barstow, for instance), he inspires me to want to explore the dominant industrial and military culture that has transformed and despoiled once wild landscapes.

Forest fire recovery area and the Upper Gallatin River, Gallatin County, Montana, 1985

Forest fire recovery area and the Upper Gallatin River, Gallatin County, Montana, 1985

To know about the destructive effects that the greed-is-good ideology produces is one thing, to be shown the (sometimes pleasingly looking) devastating destruction quite another. From “Wilderness to Wasteland” is a superbly convincing illustration not only of things going wrong but of an impending collective suicide.

This book is however, as Joyce Carol Oates rightly states in her foreword, “far from photojournalism, and carries with it no evident imperative, no accusations or angry despair.” How David Hanson characterised these photographs sums up the sensations I felt best: “Meditations on ravaged a landscape.” That these meditations found their expression in arresting images might help to educate us.

There’s also an impressive afterword by Miles Orvell in which he provides a highly informed and detailed discussion of the photographs (and, it needs to be said, this is rare in photo books where contributors regularly write about everything and anything but not about the photos) in this truly outstanding tome, and puts Hanson’s work into a historical context.

Hansen Cover
Wilderness to Wasteland
by David T. Hanson
Taverner Press 2015, Fairfield Iowa

Also published on Medium.

About Hans Durrer

Hans Durrer is an author and addiction counsellor based in Switzerland., Two of his books are in English: Ways of Perception, Bangkok 2006; Framing the World, Houston 2011.

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