Documerica: The Environmental Protection Agency’s Ambitious, Once Forgotten Photography Project from the 1970s
In the late 1960s and early 1970s a new environmentalism went mainstream. Precipitated from the infamous ‘60s counterculture, a heightened concern for the state of the environment inspired action and media attention across the country. The momentum of public outcry led to a fury of federal action on the environment. In 1969 the National Environmental Policy Act was passed, then came the Clean Air Act (1970), the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (1972), The Coastal Zone Management Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1972). And to oversee it all: a newly consolidated, still fledgling federal agency called the Environmental Protection Agency (1970).
Eager to please and garner support for environmental protection, the EPA green-lighted Documerica, an ambitious photography project which sought to document the state of the environment throughout the 1970s. Gifford Hampshire, a former National Geographic editor turned career bureaucrat in the EPA’s Public Affairs office, brought the idea to EPA leadership and directed the program until its end. The Documerica project lasted six years and hired approximately 70 photographers for about 115 assignments in all 50 states. In the end, Documerica produced 22,000 images from all across the country.
Hampshire wanted to create “a visual baseline” of the environment from which progress could be measured. Taking inspiration from the Farm Security Administration’s lauded documentary photography project during the 1930’s, Hampshire also wanted to document “any beauty worth saving.” The motto for Documerica was Barry Commoner’s Law of Ecology: “everything is connected to everything else.” Photographers spent time capturing environmental degradation, research, testing and pollution. They also photographed people in their communities, painting a more general picture of life in the 1970s.
Approximately 15% of the Documerica pictures show research and testing of pollution and environmental degradation. Pictures of air quality research are shown below.
From 1973 to 1975, photographer John L. Alexandrowicz went on assignments for Documerica in the Pittsburgh region. He took pictures of heavy industry like the Clairton Coke Works, tagged along with the Department of Environmental Protection while they tested water quality, and also captured moments of everyday life in many neighborhoods around Pittsburgh.
Some of the most engrossing pictures of the Documerica project were completely social documentary efforts in places like El Paso’s 2nd ward, Chicago’s African-American communities or Coal Miners homes in Virginia. Hampshire said of his project’s scope, “Where you see people, there’s an environmental element to which they are connected. The great Documerica pictures will show the connection and what it means.”
Technically, the Documerica project was a failure. It was originally supposed to last for 10 years and have a cultural impact on par with the Farm Security Adminstration’s photos, which were crucial to the development of documentary photography and helped sell the New Deal to the public. Due to managerial priorities and differences, the funding for Documerica was gradually cut. Even though some of most acclaimed photographers of that time contributed photos to Documerica, the images were filed away and almost completely forgotten until recently. Giff Hampshire might not have achieved the original goal of the project, but the Documerica photos provide an immense and vivid view into almost an entire decade of history, all in the rich, true color tones of government provided Kodachrome film.
An exhibit of Documerica photos is currently being shown at the National Archives Gallery until September, 8th, 2013: http://www.archives.gov/nae/visit/gallery.html.
The National Archives has digitized 16,000 Documerica photos, which are searchable online: http://www.archives.gov/research/search/.
They have also put a selection of photos on flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/sets/
Shubinski. B. (2009) “From FSA to EPA: project documerica, the dustbowl legacy, and the quest to photograph 1970s America.” PhD. Thesis, University of Iowa.
The National Archives (archives.gov)