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Documerica, a photo time capsule of the '70s, should be resurrected

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This nationwide documentary project by the EPA shows a diverse, changing America. We need a similar perspective today.

Children play in the yard of the Ruston home, while Tacoma smelter stack showers area with arsenic and lead residue
Gene Daniels. All images via the National Archives

In the early 1970s, a groundbreaking photo project under the auspices of the then-new Environmental Protection Agency attempted to answer two questions: How does one define the environment, how does the environment impact Americans, and more broadly, what does the United States looks like?

Documerica, an extensive documentary effort commissioned by the agency, was meant to serve as a sort of “visual baseline,” a record of the environment during a time of rising concerns about pollution. In practice, it became a sprawling, six-year project that captured life in all 50 states, sending 115 professional photographers fanning out across the country.

While 22,000 images were ultimately collected, the results were never fully promoted or assembled for any grander purpose; the negatives currently sit in the National Archives, and select shots have been digitized on a government Flickr account. Select images will be reissued as part of a forthcoming book celebrating graphic design at the EPA. But the entire project deserves a full retrospective.

Stacked cars in city junkyard will be used for scrap, August 1973
Dick Swanson
The Kosciusko Public Swimming Pool in the heart of the Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn in New York City. The original caption read, in part, “some of the best American architecture survives in the ‘worst’ neighborhoods, 07/1974
Danny Lyon
Thunderbird display in the Spanish-speaking Second Ward of El Paso, Texas, 07/1972
Danny Lyon
The Atlas Chemical Company belches smoke across pasture land in foreground. The plant is referred to as "Old Darky" in the community because black soot from the plant covers nearly everything nearby.
Marc St. Gil

At a time when the country feels more divided than ever, a similar effort today might make a big impact. An extensive, multifaceted, and respectful look at the state of the nation could be a welcome tool for understanding and unity, bridging the urban-rural split and class and cultural divides that became painfully clear during the last election cycle. A clear-eyed look at the state of our environment, during a time of climate change, would be welcome as well.

Created before crowdsourced imagery and social media, Documerica, due to its professional staff, managed to be focused despite the wide latitude it gave photographers. The democratic nature of the project created a fantastic scope that captured a country in the midst of many shifts and changes.

Documerica was the dream of Gifford Hampshire, who hired talent and oversaw the six-year shoot. After growing up in Kansas as a child, the former National Geographic editor was always intrigued by the government photo programs that documented the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, and used that as a model for the project. After selling William Ruckelshaus, the first head of the EPA, on the idea, he began commissioning photojournalists.

Apartment terrace of a family in New York City.
Clark Avenue bridge is rendered nearly invisible by heavy industrial smoke.
Airplane approaching Logan Airport, 05/1973
Michael Manheim
Recreational development of Lake Travis, Texas.
Bill Reaves

Instead of just digging into the specific problems the Environmental Protection Agency was established to combat and correct, Hampshire took a holistic view, seeking to document how environmental concerns impacted public health. According to Bruce Bustard, a senior curator at the National Archives, Hampshire wanted to capture a lot more than images of smokestacks and smog.

“He took Barry Commoner’s law of ecology as the project’s motto: ‘Everything is connected to everything else,”’ Bustard told Curbed. “That made for lots of photo possibilities.”

Hampshire’s approach allowed the photographers to focus on numerous aspects of how and where we live, encouraging them to delve into issues of urban planning and public spaces. The eclectic photo series documented African-American communities in Chicago, as well as Fountain Square in Cincinnati. Development, sprawl, transportation, and housing appear repeatedly in the archive, in both as subjects and in the background.

Members of the Fairmont Golden Circle Club hold quilt they have made. In the background is a century-old frame house, the oldest building in town. Originally a school, it is now a private residence, May 1973
Associate County Court Judge Fred Burns on his daily bike ride to the Seward County courthouse, May 1972
Charles O’Rear

Charles O’Rear, one of the photographers who hit the road for the Documerica program, built up an itinerary that showed the sprawling nature of the project. He took photos in California, traveled to villages in Alaska, rode Amtrak for a month, rented a helicopter to shoot aerials in Hawaii, and even traveled to a rural county in Nebraska known at the time for having the residents with the longest lifespans in the country (due, supposedly, to the quality of the water).

As O’Rear remembers it, the initial mission, to visually record the state of the environment, was pretty loose, but he went with it. The day rates were generous, he says, and in general, it was a unique opportunity to interpret the landscape.

Interior of the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal built for the 1932 Summer Olympics held in that California city. May 1974
Charles O’Rear
The dome car on Amtrak trains is a popular place for passengers who want to watch the scenery unfold. These people are watching the landscape of Arizona and New Mexico as the Southwest Limited makes its way between Los Angeles, California and Albuquerque, New Mexico. June 1974
Charles O’Rear

Other government-sponsored photo projects, such as the Farm Security Administration’s Office of War Information photo series, which documented life between 1935 and 1944 (including Dorothea Lange’s iconic Migrant Mother photo), and the Historic American Building Survey, captured culture, society, and the built environment. The EPA even launched a crowdsourced State of the Environment project on 2011. It’s hard to imagine the government commissioning such a project today, which seems like a shame after sorting through such rich visual documents of shared experiences in the ‘70s.

Like many ambitious projects in Washington, Documerica suffered due to a changing of the guard. After a change in administrations, enthusiasm waned, and after Ruckelshaus resigned in 1974 during Watergate, the project was for all intents and purposes placed in storage. It officially ended in 1977. Hampshire tried to get the project resumed, but budget cuts, his own health problems, and political opposition quashed his hopes (“Documerica was just a file now,” he wrote in his memoir.) O’Rear’s work documenting the landscape around the Lower Colorado River made it into a future issue of National Geographic; as far as he knows, that’s one of the only parts of Documerica that was widely seen and circulated at the time.

“There was very little follow-through,” says O’Rear. “All the film was placed in storage, and most the the slides and colors have faded. I went to the National Archive to look at some of my old transparencies, and they were in some of the worst condition I’ve ever seen. It could have been a lot more than it was.”

Row houses in Philadelphia, August 1973
Dick Swanson
Walt Whitman Bridge crosses the Delaware River at South Philadelphia and leads to New Jersey suburbs, August 1973
Dick Swanson
Crossing the painted road which extends east from the Philadelphia Museum Of Art, August 1973
Dick Swanson

According to the publishers behind the EPA graphics book, which includes a 40-page section on Documerica, there was a book released in the ‘70s, though it had a small print run. A series of small exhibition showcased some of the project’s early results, and more recently, an exhibit at the National Archives, “Searching for the Seventies: The Documerica Photography Project” showcased select shots from the project and published an accompanying book.

But to the disappointment of Hampshire and early EPA officials, the project has never really achieved the fame of the Depression-era FSA photo series it was modeled after. Yet even today, it does appear to have achieved one of its goals. One of the mandates for the project, according to a University of Iowa paper, was to rekindle “widespread nostalgia for a mythic American past,” which, in the ‘70s meant overshadowing a time of social upheaval over Vietnam, civil rights, and the shifting post-industrial landscape. Instead, it was an honest look at conditions on the ground.

Perhaps providing a more clear, objective look at our diverse, always-developing country, could offer the type of empathy that many feel is sorely lacking today.

Burning discarded automobile batteries near Houston, 07/1972
Marc St. Gil
Miners Line Up to Go Into the Elevator Shaft at the Virginia-Pocahontas Coal Company Mine #4 near Richlands, Virginia. The man at the right wears a new hat, which means he’s new and has worked underground for less than a month. 04/1974
Jack Corn
Modern buildings tower over the shanties crowded along the Martin Pena Canal in Puerto Rico, 02/1973
John Vachon
Abandoned car under a palm tree in Rincon, Puerto Rico, 02/1973
John Vachon
Exhibit at the First Symposium on Low Pollution Power Systems Development held at the Marriott Motor Inn, Ann Arbor. Participants are looking over the ESB "Sundancers", an experimental electric car. 10/1973
Frank Lodge
Rider with an American flag on horseback in a parade on the main street of Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, near Emporia.
Patricia Duncan