DOCUMERICA – The 1970s American Landscape

Posted December 2nd, 2011

Enviroments, Photography, USA

“By the late 1960s, the American landscape was ravaged by decades of unchecked land development, blighted by urban decay in the big cities, and plagued by seemingly unstoppable air, noise, and water pollution”, writes C. Jerry Simmons at Prologue. “In November 1971, the newly created Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a monumental photodocumentary project to record changes in the American environment. DOCUMERICA resulted in a collection of more than 20,000 photographs by its conclusion in 1978.

The project takes rightful credit for the United States’ first serious examination of its rapidly decaying natural environment. With Gifford D. Hampshire as project director, and with a clear mission to “pictorially document the environmental movement in America during this decade,” photography started in January 1972.

As expected with any large­scale, nationwide project, Hampshire and other DOCUMERICA organizers saw their fair share of problems and challenges, ranging from copyright arguments with the American Society of Magazine Photographers to the salaries of individual photographers. At one point, the project was nearly scrubbed by EPA’s managers as it had become too complicated for the young agency to manage. After an administrative reorganization in August 1972, and an infusion of photodocumentary expertise from Arthur Rothstein, former Farm Security Administration photographer, DOCUMERICA took on a life of its own and became a hit among Americans who had seen just a sampling of the photographs in exhibits staged at EPA facilities and other small venues.

Manhattan Bridge tower in Brooklyn, New York City, framed through nearby buildings, in June of 1974. (Danny Lyon/NARA)

Now, more than 30 years since the dismantling of the last exhibit, DOCUMERICA photographs bridge a span of three decades of environmental revolution in the United States. DOCUMERICA’s official mission effectively focused on popular but valid environmental concerns of the early 1970s: water, air, and noise pollution; unchecked urbanization; poverty; environmental impact on public health; and youth culture of the day. But in reaction to the varied pollution, health and social crises, DOCUMERICA succeeded also in affirming America’s commitment to solving these problems by capturing positive images of human life and Americans’ reactions, responses, and resourcefulness.”

Construction on Lower Manhattan’s West Side, just north of the World Trade Center, May 1973. (Wil Blanche/NARA)

Read on at Prologue.

One thing you can find in the archives is the first installation, on October 10, 1971, of Christo & Jeanne Claude’s Valley Curtain in Rifle Gap, Colorado.

Search the catalogue yourself. There are some really impressive photos over there.

Images above from “Alan Taylor’s 46 favorite images from DOCUMERICA []“