Incredible Images Show 1970s America’s True Colors

The Photo Blog
July 4 2013 11:00 AM

Searching for the ’70s and Finding America

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
Water cooling towers of the John Amos Power Plant loom over a Poca, W.Va., home on the other side of the Kanawha River in August 1973.

Harry Schaefer/National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

How do you take a problem as broad as “the environment” and then subdivide that by issues specific to every state in America—and then further subdivide it by issues related to culture, politics, and race? You might try to divide and conquer. In a way, that was the idea behind the Documerica Project, created by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1971.

Documerica set out to capture how America viewed the rapidly deteriorating environment marked by issues of pollution and waste taking shape around the country.

Founded by Gifford Hampshire, Documerica lasted about six years, hired roughly 70 photographers, and knocked out 115 assignments in all 50 states. Photographers were paid $150 a day plus film and expenses and were given the creative freedom to interpret environmental issues outlined to them from EPA employees.

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The results—22,000 images—ended up documenting environmental issues and brought another meaning to environment that focused on local neighborhoods, social issues, political changes, and the remarkable fashion trends typical of the 1970s.

The National Archives in Washington, D.C., edited through the archives of Documerica and has put on view an exhibition titled “Searching for the Seventies: The Documerica Photography Project that will run through Sept. 8 in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery.

Photograph, "“Young woman watches as her car goes through testing at an auto emission inspection station in Downtown Cincinnati, Ohio.  All light duty, spark ignition powered motor vehicles are tested annually for carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions, and given a safety check.  All other vehicles registered in the city receive an annual safety check.  The emissions test on an exhaust analyzer went into effect in January 1975; the safety test has been in effect since 1940”, September 1975Photographer: Series: Photographs and other Graphic Materials from the Environmental Protection Agency, (12/09/1970-)Record Group 412: Records of the Environmental Protection Agency, 1944-2006Still Pictures Identifier: 412-DA-13704ARC Identifier: 556156Rediscovery Identifier: 25280
A woman watches as her car goes through testing at an auto emission inspection station in downtown Cincinnati in September 1973. All light-duty, spark-ignition-powered motor vehicles were tested annually for carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions and given a safety check. All other vehicles registered in the city received an annual safety check. The emissions test on an exhaust analyzer went into effect in January 1975; the safety test had been in effect since 1940.

Lyntha Scott Eiler/National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

Two girls smoking pot during an outing in cedar woods near Leaky, Texas (taken with permission), one of nine pictures near San Antonio," May 1973Photographer: M. St. GilSeries: Photographs and other Graphic Materials from the Environmental Protection Agency, (12/09/1970-)Record Group 412: Records of the Environmental Protection Agency, 1944-2006ARC Series Identifier: 554907Still Pictures Identifier: 412-DA-12455Rediscovery Identifier: 25282
Two girls smoke pot during an outing in the cedar woods of Leaky, Texas, in May 1973. (Photo taken with permission.)

Marc St. Gil/National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

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
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 in March 1974. 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 Feb. 25, 1975.

John H. White/National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

Bruce Bustard, senior curator at the National Archives, had been interested in Documerica since the late 1990s and was eager to work on the project. He wrote via email that a couple of things helped him to curate the show from the prolific collection of images: focusing on key issues of the 1970s and editing through the selects with Archives staff members. When you have the chance to work with an expansive and exceptional body of work, it doesn’t hurt, either.

“Giff Hampshire, who directed DOCUMERICA, was interested in what he called ‘the human connection’ to the environment,” Bustard wrote. “He realized that limiting his photographers to a narrow definition of ‘environment’ would result in lots of photographs of smog, waste treatment plants and dead fish, and he wanted to encourage them to have a wider vision … He took Barry Commoner’s law of ecology as the project’s motto: ‘Everything is connected to everything else.’ That made for lots of photo possibilities.”

“Children play in yard of Ruston home, whileTacoma smelter stack showers area with arsenicand lead residue.”Gene Daniels, Ruston, Washington, August 1972
Children play in the yard of a Ruston, Wash., home, while a Tacoma smelter stack showers area with arsenic and lead residue in August 1972.

Gene Daniels/National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

Left: Photograph, "Michigan Avenue, Chicago"July 1975Right: Photograph, "Dana Jens in her bedroom," Meeker Colorado, July 1975Photographer: Holly Wiedman
Left: Michigan Avenue, Chicago, July 1975. Right: Dana Jens in her bedroom in Meeker, Colo., in July 1975.

Left: Perry Riddle/National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency Right: Holly Wiedman/National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

“Searching for the Seventies” is divided into three sections: crises in America related to civil rights, unemployment, inflation, and energy; the push toward both self-expression and group identity; and the growth of suburbs and destruction of the environment in the changing landscape.

It is remarkable and enviable to imagine a government-sponsored program (the Farm Security Administration had done a similar project during the Great Depression) that was developed to be both a sociological and creative archive. Today there is a similar project, State of the Environment, on Flickr, that is much broader (it covers the world) and encourages anyone to participate.

In some ways, comparing Documerica to State of the Environment is symbolic of the debate today between hiring professional photographers or using amateur shooters.

Country’s fuel shortage led to problems for motorists in finding gas as well as paying much more of it, and resulted in theft from cars left unprotected.  This father and son, made a sign warning thieves of the possible consequences”, April 1974Photographer: FalconerSeries: Photographs and other Graphic Materials from the Environmental Protection Agency, (12/09/1970-)Record Group 412: Records of the Environmental Protection Agency, 1944-2006ARC Series Identifier: 553111Still Pictures Identifier: 412-DA-10652Rediscovery Identifier: 25270
The country’s fuel shortage led to problems finding gas and paying higher prices, which resulted in theft from cars left unprotected. This father and son made a sign warning thieves of the possible consequences in Portland, Ore., in April 1974.

David Falconer/National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

Two Latin girls pose in front of a wall of graffiti in Lynch Park in Brooklyn, New York City. This project is a portrait of the inner city environment. It contains life, great murals on the walls of buildings and people enjoying themselves. Today’s inner city is a contradiction to main stream America’s gas station expressways shopping centers and tract homes. Blacks, latins and poor whites live there.” Danny Lyon, Brooklyn, New York, June 1974
Two girls pose in front of a wall of graffiti in Lynch Park in Brooklyn, N.Y., in June 1974.

Danny Lyon/National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

“State of the Environment is incredibly democratic,” Bustard wrote. “It is very exciting to see images from all over the world representing so many different points of view. However, for me, it is a little diffuse. I think using professional photographers under the direction of a photo editor made DOCUMERICA a somewhat more focused project, even with 22,000 photographs.”

The use of professional photographers was also evident once Bustard began looking at the exhibit prints for the show. Because he had seen many of the Documerica images online or on the Archives’ electronic records catalog, he wasn’t prepared for the high quality of the prints.

“For ‘Searching for the Seventies’ we were able to go back and make scans from the original slides. They had been stored under much better environmental conditions. When I saw the first color test prints, they knocked my socks off,” Bustard said.

Chemical plants on shore are considered prime source of pollution Marc St. Gil, Lake Charles, La., June 1972
Chemical plants on shore are considered a prime source of pollution for Lake Charles, La., in June 1972.

Marc St. Gil/National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

Photograph of a bride and her attendants in New Ulm, Minnesota.” Art Hanson, New Ulm, Minnesota, October 1974
A bride and her attendants in New Ulm, Minn., in October 1974

Art Hanson/National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

A senior citizens march to protest inflation, unemployment and high taxes stopped along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago to hear speeches from various officials. The rally was headed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Operation Push.” John H. White, Chicago, Illinois, October 1973
A senior citizens' march to protest inflation, unemployment, and high taxes stopped along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago to hear speeches from various officials in October 1973. The rally was headed by Rev. Jesse Jackson and Operation Push.

John H. White/National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

“Movie Theatre.” Charles Steinhacker, Berlin, New Hampshire, June 1973
A movie theater in Berlin, N.H., in June 1973

Charles Steinhacker/National Archives, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

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