The first Earth Day inaugurated on April 22, 1970, and twenty million Americans rallied together in support of environmental concern. That was cause enough for the Nixon administration to create the Environmental Protection Agency to establish and enforce environmental protection standards. “The 1970s, we’re beginning to realize, were a much more important decade than we thought. It’s not just disco and streaking,” said Bruce Bustard, curator with the National Archives, who researched Project Documerica for the exhibit “Picturing the Century: One hundred years of photography from the National Archives.”
In a 1971 press release, William D. Ruckelshaus, head of the EPA said, “We are working toward a new environmental ethic in this decade which will bring profound change in how we live, and in how we provide for future generations. It is important that we document that change so future generations will understand our successes and our failures.”
That same year, the EPA began hiring well-known photographers to document various environmental concerns across America. Project director Gifford Hampshire welcomed a broad definition of environment that went beyond landscapes — he wanted to see how people interacted with their surroundings, how they controlled it, and vice versa. And so scenes of junk yards, urban life, beaches, mountains, traffic, water pollution, and lots of people — land and every day life — were captured. The results, though beautiful in its honesty, can spawn a range of sentiments: sadness, anger, fear, hope, wonder. Furthermore, the story of how Documerica came together and fell apart is an interesting one that’s sure to spur plenty of feelings, too.
By 1974, the project seemed to be successful. Over 81,000 photos from more than 100 photographers had been produced, and were printed and circulated in everything from magazines to textbooks to newstrips. “Our Only World”, a traveling Smithsonian exhibit of 113 Documerica photos, got rave reviews. However, “throughout the project’s lifetime, Hampshire faced constant pressure to justify its existence. A number of issues brought the early demise to Documerica in 1977, before its 10-year mission could be completed. Publications had limited access to images in the Documerica databank –- they were only available at regional offices. Images provided to publications were lower quality duplicates of the original photographs, too low quality for some magazines. And the project was started in the 1970’s, just as picture magazines like LIFE and LOOK were going bankrupt in the face of competition from color television. Perhaps most significant, it was ultimately impossible to defend the existence of a social documentary project within the EPA, a scientific organization. Funding for Documerica finally dried up in 1977.”
After that, the project was swallowed by the National Archives, and pretty much dropped out of public awareness until recently. Heartbreak. And the EPA is classified as merely a scientific organization? I fail to see the logic there, since the earth contains inhabitants, and we’ll never be able to escape the social aspect of any environmental issue until humankind vanishes in the fashion of a particular Alan Weisman story.
Check out the rest of the (huge!) Project Documerica collection on Flickr.