In December 1951, a nuclear power plant outside Atomic City, Idaho, sent electricity through four 200-watt bulbs, in the first use of a nuclear plant for that purpose. The flickering lights were a promising sign for the high-desert community, situated next to the world’s largest concentration of reactors.

Less than 15 years and a couple of nuclear accidents later, the plant was decommissioned, leaving the town to wither into a historical footnote.

Photographer David T. Hanson uses Atomic City as one of many settings in his book Wilderness to Wasteland. In images made during the early and mid-’80s, Hanson captures large-scale energy and mining production sites and the “poisoned landscape” they left behind. Those scars, Hanson writes, will be industrialized society’s legacy. “Indeed, it seems likely that the most enduring monuments that Western civilization will leave for future generations will not be Stonehenge, the Pyramids of Giza, or the cathedral of Chartres,” he says, “but rather the hazardous remains of our industry and technology.”

High Country News talked with Hanson about what drove his project and what he observed about the relationship between humans and the landscapes they inhabit.

Why is it important to show what you call “terrain transformed by humans to serve their needs?”

John Szarkowski, former director of photography at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, wrote about photographers addressing the contemporary landscape (as opposed to the idyllic, primeval American wilderness depicted by Ansel Adams and others): “We (must) turn our attention to the rest of the earth, that part in which we live, which is not yet devoid of life and beauty, and which we might still rescue as a place worth celebrating. This is perhaps what photographers have begun to do, starting with the intuition that one must begin with respectful attention to what remains alive, even if scarred and harshly used, and trusting that attention will grow into affection, and affection into a measure of competence, so that we might in time learn again to live not merely on the earth, but with it.”

With my photographs, I am asking people to take a look at the world that we’re creating, and reassess where we’re going in the name of Progress. Only if we look and understand can we realize that the time has come for a radical transformation—for a return to balance, sanity and sustainability.

How did you choose the locations of these images?

I chose a workable number of Superfund sites that I had selected from over 400,000 hazardous-waste sites throughout the U.S. The 67 sites I selected represented a cross-section of American geography and industrial waste activities, including 19th-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. The series includes real estate development in the Los Angeles basin, oil fields in Texas, abandoned mines throughout the West, chemical-weapons complexes and their disposal sites in Colorado and Utah, aerospace industries in California and Arizona, Wyoming’s abandoned Lucky Mac uranium mine, and the toxic Yankee Doodle tailings pond in Butte, Mont.

Do you think any of the “wastelands” humans have created can return to “wilderness?”

Certainly some of these “wastelands” will be reclaimed, but whether they will ever truly return to “wilderness” is hard to imagine. More importantly, it seems frightening yet strangely appropriate that the most enduring monuments America will leave for future generations will be the hazardous remains of our industry and technology. The temples of the Aztec and Mayan civilizations have survived a mere 500 years to 2,000 years; Native American Anasazi cave dwellings and pictographs date back only 1,000 years to 2,500 years. How much longer-lasting—and how tragic in consequence—will be the contemporary wasteland that has been created in the United States during the past 200 years, and especially the past 50?

Do you think the human relationship with the environment in the West should change?

As I traveled throughout the United States, I saw an entire landscape transformed by carelessness, greed, a utilitarian approach to nature and our environment, the systematic exploitation of natural resources, the notion of Manifest Destiny and the related idea that the “owners” of land have the right to do whatever they want to do to it. Clearly, our relationship with the environment must change and become more sustainable if we are going to survive.

Doyou find these “wasteland” landscapes beautiful, and why?

The writer Wendell Berry’s thoughts on my work best summarize my own feelings:

“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, but 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.”

This interview, which was edited for length and clarity, was originally published in High Country News.

Wilderness to Wasteland

By David T. Hanson

Taverner Press

192 pages, $55