How a 1970s photo project revealed America’s pollution problem and what the EPA could do about it
In the 1970s, the newly created Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) partnered with professional photographers to take pictures of the people and the land – from polluted rivers to pristine forests – of America.
The Documerica project collected more than 20,000 photographs.
The EPA aimed to stress the direct link between Americans and their position within their environment as well as their responsibility for keeping it clean.
The project also intended to introduce the fledgling agency and its importance to everyday Americans.
In the background of a photograph, taken just outside of Baltimore, a massive industrial plant dwarfs the foreground of rowhomes located uncomfortably nearby. In another, taken in Tyler, Texas, a web of highways occupies the greater part of the image, a vast tract of land paved over and devoted to car culture and urban sprawl.
Such are the images that compose the Documerica project, an ambitious endeavor by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to photograph the people and topography of 1970s America, as well as the effects of pollution on the country’s flora and fauna.
From 1972 to 1977, the agency contracted with well-known photographers of the day to take more than 20,000 photographs of the sources and evidence of environmental pollution. Along with people, subjects depicted include factories, garbage heaps and oil spills as well as the country’s natural splendor, such as forests, mountains and rivers — a striking reminder of America’s threatened riches.
Although Documerica had a short life, it is a fascinating look at mid-20th-century America and the U.S. government’s approach to communicating with the public, says Kimia Shahi, assistant professor of art history at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Shahi is looking at the impetus behind the project, its legacy and its role in informing Americans about the importance of what was then a fledgling agency.
“When I started my work, there really wasn’t much scholarship on Documerica, and I became intrigued by both what this project meant in its moment and also why in the present day it seemed largely forgotten,” Shahi says.
President Richard Nixon created the EPA in 1970 to respond to the American public’s growing concern over environmental pollution. Although the agency quickly gained regulatory authority and a healthy budget, it still had to deal with opposition from business interests as well as confusion and skepticism from citizens, who were not clear on its function or its potential to rein in polluters.
Documerica was one way the agency sought to demystify its purpose and prove its importance to the public, Shahi says. The fact that the government chose to use photography to achieve this goal reflected its desire to appeal to the public through a popular medium, as well as the spirit of the era, when music and art were often used to convey messages of peace, hope and renewal.
Documerica’s director, Gifford Hampshire, was a passionate proponent of documentary photography and envisioned his project as a 1970s version of the Farm Security Administration’s photography program of the Great Depression, which had produced iconic images like Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother.
The Documerica photographs circulated around the country during the 1970s, traveling to art museums, universities and libraries, and appearing in print publications, to ensure the images would be seen by as many Americans as possible.
“The project appealed because it was a way of showing the EPA’s progress in real time and using photography in this particular way to respond to the pressing concerns of the moment,” Shahi explains. “Pollution was becoming a mainstream issue. The agency had the idea that the photographs would serve as a visual record of pollution and the EPA’s role in combatting it.”
A troubled land
In the 1960s, pollution in America was beginning to affect large swathes of the population. Unregulated factories belched chemicals into the air, the country’s car culture produced increasing quantities of exhaust emissions, and businesses dumped chemicals and garbage into the nation’s rivers and lakes.
Some pollutants — trash piles, smog, oil slicks — were easy to depict in photographs. Others, such as noise pollution, were more difficult, but the agency found creative ways to do so. A 1973 photo, for example, shows a group of young women watching a landing jet plane, with one woman covering her ears.
But the focus was not only on the country’s environment but also its people, those affected by pollution on a daily basis, such as coal miners or children living in smog-filled neighborhoods, and those affected to a lesser extent, such as hitchhikers, churchgoers or picnickers. Shuttered gas stations illustrate the energy crisis of the early 1970s. A line of cookie-cutter houses along a deserted street in suburban New York contrasts starkly with a crowd of Philadelphia children playing in water rushing from an opened fire hydrant.
“One of the key principles of the project was this idea of everything being connected to everything else, popularized by Barry Commoner as the first law of ecology,” Shahi explains. (Commoner was a biologist, politician and ecologist who helped found the modern environmental movement.) “In addition to showing things like pollution, the project tried to expand a definition of the environment to think about interconnectedness — urban life, suburban life, people, things that might not strike the average person as related to the Earth or nature. And to show Americans’ place in the environment as well as their responsibility toward it.”
After a change in EPA leadership, support for the project fizzled, and it ended in 1978. Because the project only lasted for a few years, it did not create the long-term visual record of environmental damage — and repair — for which the agency originally intended it. But it did introduce the public to the realities of pollution and the importance of the agency tasked with protecting people from it.
For Shahi, the Documerica project’s ambitions echo through to the present, as the agency faces new challenges to its ability to act, such as a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that limits the agency’s power to set limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. However, President Joe Biden recently signed the Inflation Reduction Act, an order that aims to reduce air pollution by cutting greenhouse gases and methane production, as well as provide grants to low-income communities to improve air quality on a local level.
“It’s a moment of uncertainty and possibility for the EPA. Following the challenges posed by the Supreme Court ruling, the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act signals new legislative momentum behind environmental and environmental justice priorities,” Shahi says. “I’ll be curious to watch how the EPA supports these priorities, and how the agency continues to communicate about its work to the public using visual and other media.”