Project Documerica: For Future Generations

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Earth, as Seen by Astronauts Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt from Apollo 17, December, 1972

Earth, as Seen by Astronauts Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt from Apollo 17, December, 1972

Hitchhiker with His Dog "Tripper" on U.S. 66, May 1972

Hitchhiker with His Dog

Jet Zooms Over Southwestern Side of Neptune Road 05/1973

Jet Zooms Over Southwestern Side of Neptune Road 05/1973

Children in Fort Smith Are Learning That Protecting the Environment Will Take More Than Awareness. 06/1972

Children in Fort Smith Are Learning That Protecting the Environment Will Take More Than Awareness. 06/1972

Residents Take Part in Organized Daily Exercises in One of the Public Pools at Century Village Retirement Community.

Residents Take Part in Organized Daily Exercises in One of the Public Pools at Century Village Retirement Community.

Exhibit at the First Symposium on Low Pollution Power Systems Development Held at the Marriott Motor Inn, Ann Arbor Vehicles and Hardware Were Assembled at the EPA Ann Arbor Laboratory. Part of the Exhibit Was Held in the Motel Parking Lot Photo Shows Participants Looking over the Esb 'Sundancers', an Experimental Electric Car 10/1973

Exhibit at the First Symposium on Low Pollution Power Systems Development Held at the Marriott Motor Inn, Ann Arbor Vehicles and Hardware Were Assembled at the EPA Ann Arbor Laboratory. Part of the Exhibit Was Held in the Motel Parking Lot Photo Shows Participants Looking over the Esb 'Sundancers', an Experimental Electric Car 10/1973

Miner Wayne Gipson, 39, with His Daughter Tabitha, 3. 12/1974

Miner Wayne Gipson, 39, with His Daughter Tabitha, 3. 12/1974

Overall View of Downtown Portland, at 8 P.M. In October, 1973 Showing Lack of Commercial Lighting During the Peak of the Energy Crisis. The Ban Was Issued by Executive Order of Oregon's Governor 10/1973

Overall View of Downtown Portland, at 8 P.M. In October, 1973 Showing Lack of Commercial Lighting During the Peak of the Energy Crisis. The Ban Was Issued by Executive Order of Oregon's Governor 10/1973

Sunset over the Harbor at Vancouver, Head of Deep-Water Navigation on the Columbia River 05/1973

Sunset over the Harbor at Vancouver, Head of Deep-Water Navigation on the Columbia River 05/1973

After the Oregon Governor Banned Neon and Commercial Lighting Displays, Firms Used Their Unlit Signs to Convey Energy Saving Messages Which Could Be Seen During the Day. The Sign Was in Portland 10/1973

After the Oregon Governor Banned Neon and Commercial Lighting Displays, Firms Used Their Unlit Signs to Convey Energy Saving Messages Which Could Be Seen During the Day. The Sign Was in Portland 10/1973

Constitution Beach - Within Sight and Sound of Logan Airport's Takeoff Runway 22r

Constitution Beach - Within Sight and Sound of Logan Airport's Takeoff Runway 22r

The Atlas Chemical Company Belches Smoke across Pasture Land in Foreground. 06/1972

The Atlas Chemical Company Belches Smoke across Pasture Land in Foreground. 06/1972

Development of Artificial Reefs at Marco Island.

Development of Artificial Reefs at Marco Island.

Owner of the First House Made Completely from Empty Steel Beer and Soft Drink Cans ... 06/1974

Owner of the First House Made Completely from Empty Steel Beer and Soft Drink Cans ... 06/1974

The Energy Crisis in the States of Oregon and Washington Resulted in Attempts at Humor by Businesses with Darkened Signs Such as This One in Vancouver, Washington 11/1973

The Energy Crisis in the States of Oregon and Washington Resulted in Attempts at Humor by Businesses with Darkened Signs Such as This One in Vancouver, Washington 11/1973

The George Washington Bridge in Heavy Smog. View toward the New Jersey Side of the Hudson River.

The George Washington Bridge in Heavy Smog. View toward the New Jersey Side of the Hudson River.

Empty Steel Beer and Soft Drink Cans Are Being Used to Build Experimental Housing near Taos, New Mexico. Designer Michael Reynolds Stands Next to an Interior Wall in One of the Structures. The Inside Walls Are Built with Cans in the Position Shown.

Empty Steel Beer and Soft Drink Cans Are Being Used to Build Experimental Housing near Taos, New Mexico. Designer Michael Reynolds Stands Next to an Interior Wall in One of the Structures. The Inside Walls Are Built with Cans in the Position Shown.

Burning Discarded Automobile Batteries, 07/1972

Burning Discarded Automobile Batteries, 07/1972

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.

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April 22, 2011

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Christy

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