The Toxic Remains Of America’s Most Polluted City

The EPA once declared Picher, Oklahoma, the most toxic place in America. That didn’t stop Seph Lawless from photographing it.

There are ghost towns, and then there are ghost towns. Picher is the latter.


Once a bustling center for lead and zinc mining, this Oklahoma town was poisoned by the industry that once made it thrive. Dangerously undermined by catacombs of mining shafts beneath its streets, the buildings of Picher began crumbling underfoot, even as the groundwater became so contaminated that 34% of the children in the town measured positive for lead poisoning. By 2006, the EPA declared Picher the most contaminated city in America and ordered the town abandoned. By 2009, it was officially disincorporated.

Although Picher can’t even be called a city anymore, it still lives on in the apocalyptic graveyard of crumbling buildings and infrastructure that remain. This version of Picher is the subject of the photographer Seph Lawless’s latest book, The Prelude: The Deadliest City in America. If you notice mountains in the blood red backgrounds of Lawless’s photographs, take a closer look. They’re actually toxic piles of chat, a poisonous by-product of zinc and lead.

Lawless came to Picher in 2015, by the invitation of Gary Linderman, the town’s former pharmacist. Although all citizens were ordered to leave Picher a decade ago, Linderman obstinately stuck around within city limits to provide medicine for residents who remained in nearby areas. Although Lawless spoke to Linderman over the phone on more than one occasion, the photographer never got to meet him: Linderman died shortly before Lawless arrived to photograph the town. No autopsy was ever performed, but otherwise, he was healthy. It’s unknown if his death was because of his decision to keep living in Picher. Yet as he photographed the town, Lawless says he was a constant inspiration. “Gary knew the struggle for his town to recover was a daunting task, but he had no misconceptions about that either. He wanted to prove that if he stayed in that city that it meant the city still had a chance of survival,” Lawless says.

When he actually arrived in Picher, though, Lawless couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Against the backdrop of an appropriately apocalyptic sky, the city itself looked like it had been dead a thousand years. “I kept thinking the earth could open up any minute and swallow me and no one would ever know,” Lawless says. “At one point my foot went through the ground and I fell to the ground thinking I was going to cave in and die. In complete astonishment of the situation, I found myself photographing the hole where my foot went in, realizing later just how chilling that moment really was for me.”

Eventually, Lawless was run out of the town by a tornado, but not before capturing dozens of rolls of a dead town condemned in hell. Lawless says it’s easily the scariest project he’s ever worked on, and looking over his photos, it’s easy to see why. If Gary Linderman truly believed that Picher had a chance of survival, it could only be as America’s most haunting ghost town.

You can buy a copy of Seph Lawless’s *The Prelude: The Deadliest City in America* here.


All Photos: Seph Lawless