In 1971, the newly formed US Environmental Protection agency launched a photojournalistic project known as Documerica, intended to document the state of the environment similar to the way the Farm Security Admininstration called attention to the rural poor during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Photographers were personally selected by project director, Gifford D. Hampshire, and assigned specific geographic regions. Their charge was straightforward yet broad enough for artistic interpretation: “to photograph America’s environmental problems, to document America’s natural and man-made beauty and to photograph the human condition.”
The project, which lasted through 1978, generated more than 20,000 images, some of which were selected for traveling exhibits shown throughout the United States. Collectively, they depicted not only the environmental conditions of the day, but slices of American life during the period.
After years of being largely forgotten in the bowels of the National Archives, 15,000 images from the collection are now being uploaded to Flicker, where they’re available to anyone with access to a computer.
Alexis Madrigal at Wired, describes the archive:
Traffic jams, noise pollution from jackhammers and 747s, and graffiti appear alongside photos of caribou and western landscapes. Coal mining and mudslides mingle with swimming, movie theaters and greased-pig chases.
It’s a remarkable portrait of the early 1970s, when manufacturing still ruled the economy and environmental laws had just begun to regulate the air and water. The photographs show people, technology and biosphere colliding, producing both devastating consequences and innovative solutions.
C. Jerry Simmons, archives specialist writing for the National Archives, summarized the relevance of the project:
When we look at images of today’s environment, we can see that what troubles the environment in the new millennium is what troubled it in the early 1970s, and DOCUMERICA confirms it. Thousands of images of pollution, strip mining, crowded cities, and land abuse could well be photographs taken in recent times. Though a great deal has been done over the past 30 years to correct problems depicted in the photographs, there is a common consensus that there is so much left to accomplish in the race to save America’s natural resources.
At Blue Marble, Kate Shepard wonders whether it’s time for a new Documerica to inspire a new generation of environmentalists. Sounds like a fine idea.