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Back in the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency sent over 70 photographers to all 50 states in order to document the environmental concerns of the regions. The EPA had only just formed in 1970, and the interest in the state of the environment was high. With some of the best photojournalists of the time sent out with little restrictions to find stories, the results of the federally-funded project — called Documerica — didn’t just capture smokestacks looming ominously over homes and the festering pockets of pollution (although it had plenty of that), but also daily life from all corners of the country and the trends and cultural diversity of the time.
The U.S. National Archives has a selection of these Documerica photographs online, although the scans of the 35 mm color negatives are just a segment of the tens of thousands of images in their archives captured by photojournalists. They included Jack Corn who went out in the mining towns of the Appalachians, Marc St. Gil who visited the people living by the chemical plants on the shores of Louisiana, Terry and Lyntha Scott Eiler who documented the changing life of the Navajo among Arizona’s new power plants, and Charles O’Rear who plunged into the raging forest fires in the Sierra Mountain Range. The photographs stretch from 1971 to 1976, and it was only the second major federally-funded photography project, preceded by the Farm Security Administration‘s photographs in the 1930s that looked at the poverty in the rural United States, with work by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Arthur Rothstein.
This week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, a theater piece called Documerica is having its world premiere, where photographs from the project are scored by music from string quartet ETHEL. Earlier this year, Searching for the Seventies: The DOCUMERICA Photography Project was exhibited at the National Archives in Washington, DC. There is also an ongoing EPA initiative called State of the Environment Photography Project that is set up as a 40-years-on reaction to Documerica, where crowdsourced photographers are encouraged to go out and capture the state of their environment, and if possible to take photographs at the same spot as a Documerica photograph. They’re all shared through a Flickr group, and some show the present day and Documerica photographs side-by-side, as in this diptych of the Taos “Earthships” and this one of Aspen, Colorado.
Yet despite the renewed interest, all of these can only give a glimpse into what an expansive project it was. It’s hard to imagine, especially in this moment of government shutdown that includes the EPA and National Archives, federal funds being directed to such a large, unrestricted visual undertaking like this. But just a small length of time going through the images shows their value, revealing the environmental concerns that continue to pollute corners of the country, and the lives of the people who strive to live there.
Here are a few selections from Documerica:
Click here to view more of the Documerica archives from the U.S. National Archives.