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photo-eye Book Reviews: Colstrip, Montana

Colstrip, Montana, Photographs by David T. Hanson.
Published by Taverner Press, 2010.
Colstrip, Montana
Reviewed by Sara Terry
David T. Hanson Colstrip, Montana
Photographs by David T. Hanson. Introduction by Rick Bass. Text by David T. Hanson.
Taverner Press, 2010. Hardbound. 200 pp., 87 color illustrations, 11-3/4x9-3/4".
David Hanson's photos of the coal-mining town and landscape of Colstrip, Montana, are as sobering now as they were when John Szarkowski chose to exhibit them at the Museum of Modern Art in 1986. A native of Montana, Hanson set out to document the disturbing realities of one of the largest coal mining facilities in North America and the town that supports it - located just 100 miles from where he grew up.

Images from this well-known body of work have been exhibited widely since the MOMA show, but the original 66 photos have rarely been shown together. With this book, Hanson brings this work - plus 21 new images - into a permanent record. It is a devastating judgment on the havoc wreaked by man on the environment, and is as timely today as it was 25 years ago.

Hanson, of course, has much in common with the work of the New Topographics photographers whose landmark show preceded his own MOMA exhibition by a decade. Like those photographers, he is not preoccupied with romanticizing or idealizing nature - his focus is on the environment left behind by man's interaction with it.

Colstrip, Montana, by David T. Hanson. Published by Taverner Press, 2010.
The book opens with a series of strong aerial photographs - carefully composed images that track the coal mine's activities. What at first looks like a child's finger painting or primitive clay modeling on a canvas is actually the landscape. The images then move into a series of aerial frames that begin to show the actual plant, and the waste ponds that surround it - and the tracts of housing that snuggle right up to those contaminated ponds.

Colstrip, Montana, by David T. Hanson. Published by Taverner Press, 2010.
Colstrip, Montana, by David T. Hanson. Published by Taverner Press, 2010.
Gradually, Hanson brings our perspective down to earth, literally, with images of the houses built for workers, and the RV parks that also serve as housing - with the omnipresent factory, or huge power lines, towering above.

The absence of people is true to Hanson's vision and purposeful in its unsettling effect. He gives us no human presence to reassure us of some kind of life; instead he forces us into one bleak landscape after another, allowing nature to occasionally assert an untouched, though painful beauty, as with the partial rainbow that arches against dark, late afternoon clouds.

Next, Hanson tackles the plant itself, in its stark, eerie images that are ominous in their stillness. And finally, he pulls back again, back to aerials of the landscape that has been so wounded and the book crescendos with the images that have become among his best-known: a series of photos that look like acid-washed abstract paintings. These frames carry the anguished tension of Edvard Munch's The Scream, and stand alongside that great work as a cry against our horrific abuse of the world, begging for our wise stewardship instead of mindless greed.—Sara Terry

Sara Terry A former staff correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and magazine freelance writer, Sara Terry made a mid-career transition into documentary photography in the late 1990s. Her long-term project about the aftermath of war in Bosnia -- “Aftermath: Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace” -- was published in September 2005 by Channel Photographics, and was named as one of the best photo books of the year by Photo District News. Her work has been widely exhibited, at such venues as the United Nations, the Museum of Photography in Antwerp, and the Moving Walls exhibition at the Open Society Institute. She is the founder of The Aftermath Project (, a non-profit grant program which helps photographers cover the aftermath of conflict. She is currently directing and producing "Fambul Tok," a documentary about a post-conflict forgiveness and reconciliation program in Sierra Leone, which recently won a grant from the Sundance Documentary Institute.