"Hitchhiker with his dog, ‘Tripper,’ on U.S. 66. U.S. 66 crosses the Colorado River at Topock."

National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency
Charles O’Rear, Yuma County, Arizona, May 1972. National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

"Water cooling towers of the John Amos Power Plant loom over Poca, WV, home that is on the other side of the Kanawha River. Two of the towers emit great clouds of steam."

Harry Schaefer, Poca, West Virginia, August 1973(412-DA-8666)

"Religious fervor is mirrored on the face of a Black Muslim woman, one of some 10,000 listening to Elijah Muhammad deliver his annual Savior’s Day message in Chicago. The city is headquarters for the Black Muslims. Their $75 million Empire includes a mosque, newspaper, university, restaurants, real estate, bank, and variety of retail stores. Muhammad died February 25, 1975."

John H. White, Chicago, Illinois, March 1974. (caption written in 1975) National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

"Inexpensive retirement hotels are a hallmark of the South Beach area. A favored place is the front porch, where residents sit and chat or watch the activities on the beach."

Flip Shulke, South Beach, Miami Beach, Florida, June 1973. National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

"Michigan Avenue, Chicago" (couple on street)

Perry Riddle, Chicago, IL, July 1975. National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

"Cyclist in front of environmental center."

Thomas Sennett, Humbolt County, California, May 1972. National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

"The painted bus is home."

David Hiser, Rifle, CO, October 1972. National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

"Children play in yard of Ruston home, while Tacoma smelter stack showers area with arsenic and lead residue."

Gene Daniels, Ruston, Washington, August 1972. National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

"Great Kills Park, Staten Island."

Arthur Tress, Staten Island, New York, May 1973. National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

"Chemical plants on shore are considered prime source of pollution."

Marc St. Gil, Lake Charles, Louisiana, June 1972. National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

"Industrial smog blacks out homes adjacent to North Birmingham pipe plant. This is the most heavily polluted area of the city."

Leroy Woodson, Birmingham, Alabama, July 1972. National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

"Young woman watches as her car goes through testing at an auto emission inspection station in Downtown Cincinnati, Ohio."

Lyntha Scott Eiler, Cincinnati, OH, September 1975. National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

2013-03-27

Co.Exist

Gorgeous Vintage Photographs Of America In The 1970s, Captured By The EPA

In the 1970s, the EPA commissioned photographers to take photos of the environment and the "human condition" of American life. The Documerica project’s photos have recently been unearthed, and you can see them now.

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.

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2 Comments

  • TSeals

    Is the title of this serious? Gorgeous vintage photos of horrifying pollution? 

  • Gail L. Williams

    did you actually look at the pictures before making this comment?