In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was born. The next year, the agency began one of its most uniquely ambitious initiatives: Documerica, a photography project spanning from 1971 to 1977 that hired photographers across the U.S. to document environmental images from the 1970s, creating a baseline of what things looked like in the nation’s mines, polluted waterways, city streets–and what Documerica founder Gifford Hampshire referred to as “the human condition.” Hampshire believed that everything is connected, so it didn’t make sense to only take pictures of the gruesome underbelly of the U.S. environment; photographers were also encouraged to snap images of everyday life.
Hampshire initially hoped that photographers would return to their sites every five years to take follow-up pictures, but Documerica ran out of funding before that could happen. The images–over 20,000 of them, sat dormant for decades. Now a selection of the best pictures are on display in “Searching for the Seventies: The DOCUMERICA Photography Project,” an exhibition at the National Archives.
Bruce Bustard, the curator of the exhibition, first heard about Documerica in 1991 when an archival trainee suggested that pictures from the collection could work for an exhibition about the American west. He ended up using a selection of Documerica images for the exhibition–and for several other exhibits after that. But putting together a comprehensive retrospective was no easy task.
“The problem was initially it was very hard to use the photographs because you had to look at microfiche. One set was images, another was the captions, and you had to sit between two microfiche machines,” explains Bustard. “It was so darn difficult to find the images, and then on microfiche, the images are hardly beautiful.”
Eventually, Bustard pushed the project ahead. The exhibit is broken down into three sections: Ball of Confusion, which looks at the problems of the 1970s; Everybody is a Star, which examines fashion and freedom of expression; and Pave Paradise, a look at places and landscapes of the decade. In many ways, the wide-reaching project is reminiscent of the photographs that emerged from the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in the 1930s. And in fact, says Bustard, Hampshire “always wanted to do a photography project like the FSA photography project,” which captured rural poverty in the early part of the 20th century.
Photographers working on the project remember being given a lot of freedom. Some assignments were directly related to EPA needs (i.e. images of EPA cleanup sites), but many ideas came from the photographers themselves. “The intention was to look at the state of the environment in that era,” says Terry Eiler, a photographer who took pictures on Navajo and Hopi reservations in Arizona for Documerica. “People were encouraged to photograph how environment and culture were clashing.”
Eiler worked with his wife Lyntha on the photo series, which included shots focusing on the Four Corners Power Plant, a coal-fired power plant located on Navajo land, and the Peabody coal strip mine, spread across both Navajo and Hopi land. Both Lyntha and Terry Eiler have pictures featured in Searching for the Seventies.
“I got to go down in that strip mine on the floor,” recalls Lyntha Eiler. “It was early enough in the game that they really didn’t think of EPA as somebody to fear. That was bizarre–you came out of it, went to the shower, coal dust just everywhere, in your clothes, in your hair, in your ears, in your nose. No wonder those miners got black lung.”
Lyntha Eiler also spent about a week in Hamilton County, Ohio, where she documented the impact of new vehicle emissions regulations (one of the images is in the slideshow above). “They had several testing stations. People were pretty eager to say ‘Yeah, you can take my picture,'” she says.
So far, Bustard hasn’t been able to get in touch with any of the subjects featured in the Documerica series. “We think we may have tracked down a few people, but we haven’t been able to contact them,” he explains.
Searching for the Seventies only runs through September 8 , 2013, but over 15,000 digitized photos from Documerica are available here. Bustard stresses that the exhibition is much more than a series of photographs–it also includes photographers’ correspondences with Hampshire, photographer notebooks outlining the pictures being taken, and publications that used Documerica photos. “It’s a complete archive,” he says.