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Photographing the State of the Environment in the 1970s

Documerica
The yard of a Ruston, Washington, home in the shadow of the Tacoma Smelter Stack, August 1972 (photograph by Gene Daniels, via U.S. National Archives)

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:

Hitchhiker and his dog on US 66, May 1972 (photograph by Charles O'Rear, via U.S. National Archives) & a power plant and a Navajo sheep herder in Arizona (photograph by Terry Eiler, via U.S. National Archives)
Hitchhiker and his dog on US 66, May 1972 (photograph by Charles O’Rear, via U.S. National Archives) & a power plant and a Navajo sheep herder in Arizona (photograph by Terry Eiler, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
Inside of a subway car, May 1973, New York City (photograph by Erik Calonius, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
A chunk of sub-bituminous coal from under the surface of Montana, where the farms and ranches were being turned over to strip mining. These ranchers were refusing to sell their land. (June 1973) (photograph by Boyd Norton, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
Miners leaving the Virginia-Pocahontas Coal Company Mine #4 near Richlands, Virginia, April 1974 (photograph by Jack Corn, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
Coal City Club in Coal City, West Virginia, June 1974 (photograph by Jack Corn, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
Cemetery surrounded by land stripped and abandoned by a Hanna Coal Company Preparation Plant in Ohio, December 1973 (photograph by Erik Calonius, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
Palo Seco Electric Power Plant Across the Bay From San Juan, Puerto Rico, February 1973 (photograph by John Vachon, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
Tagged stop sign in southeastern Ohio, December 1973 (photograph by Erik Calonius, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
Navajo workman at the Peabody Coal Company in Black Mesa, Arizona, 1973 (photograph by Lyntha Scott Eiler, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
Employee near the construction site for the expansion of the San Nofre nuclear generating plant in San Clemente, California, warning swimmers to detour to the beach (June 1975) (photograph by Charles O’Rear, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
Chemical plants on the shores of Louisiana, June 1972 (photograph by Marc St. Gil, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
Landfill in Jamaica Bay, New York, May 1973 (photograph by Arthur Tress, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
Flower in a junkyard in Philadelphia, August 1973 (photograph by Dick Swanson, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
Stacked cars in a Philadelphia junkyard (photograph by Dick Swanson, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
Trying out a car at the First Symposium on Low Pollution Power Systems Development, October 1973 (photograph by Frank Lodge, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
Fountain Square in Downtown Cincinnati, June 1973 (photograph by Tom Hubbard, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
Swimming in the fountain of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, August 1973 (photograph by Dick Swanson, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
July 4th at the Kosciusko Swimming Pool in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn (photograph by Danny Lyon, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
Hunters with a deer at a check station in Colorado, 1972 (photograph by David Hiser, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
A traveling organ player at the Flint Hills Rodeo in Kansas, June 1974 (photograph by Patricia D. Duncan, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
A Senior Citizens’ March to protest inflation in Chicago, October 1973 (photograph by John H. White, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
Inspecting logs at a lumberyard from a burn area in Yosemite National Park (photograph by Charles O’Rear, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
The “granite fire” area of the 1973 Sierra Mountain Range forest fire (photograph by Charles O’Rear, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
Entering the smoke from the August 1973 Sierra Mountain Range fire to haul off logs from fire-damaged trees (photograph by Charles O’Rear, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
Fountain Square in Downtown Cincinnati, May 1973 (photograph by Tom Hubbard, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
Navajo Generating Plant Under Construction on land leased from the tribe (photograph Lyntha Scott Eiler, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
Swimmer at Havasu Creek on the Havasupai Reservation in Arizona, a heavily touristed waterway, 1972 (photograph by Terry Eiler, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
View from Dead Horse Point in Utah, May 1972 (photograph by David Hiser, via U.S. National Archives)
Documerica
“Mayor Casey” of Leakey, Texas, in this traveling truck office, June 1972 (photograph by Marc St. Gil, via U.S. National Archives)

Click here to view more of the Documerica archives from the U.S. National Archives. 

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