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Best known as the decade of disco and bell-bottoms, the 1970s also saw the birth of the modern environmental movement. A new exhibit at the National Archives explores Documerica, a photography project launched in the early ’70s by the newly-created Environmental Protection Agency. Modeled on the famous Depression-era photography of the Farm Security Administration, the EPA hired photographers to capture images of environmental pollution, but also the trends and cultural shifts of that decade.
- Bruce Bustard Senior Curator, National Archives
- Barbara Shubinski Research fellow, Rockefeller Archive Center
- Victoria Hampshire Daughter, Documerica creator Gifford Hampshire
Slideshow: Environmental Photography Of The 1970s
From 1971 to 1977, the Environmental Protection Agency hired freelance photographers to capture images relating to environmental problems, EPA activities and everyday life. The National Archives unveiled the collection this spring. The exhibit, “Searching for the Seventies: The Documerica Photography Project,” depicts the horrors of waste and pollution, as well as the trends and faces of the times. The exhibit is free to the public and runs through Sept. 8, 2013.
Video Interview With The Artists
The photographer and director of the Documerica exhibit reflect on the images and what they portray.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, "Davy Crockett," a new book explores the man behind the myth. But first, the 1970s are best known as the decade of bell-bottoms and disco, but the era also saw the birth of the modern environmental movement, including what was then a brand-new federal institution by the name of the Environmental Protection Agency.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe EPA launched a little-known photography project modeled on the famous Depression-era Farm Security Administration that brought us the iconic images of photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. The '70s version called Documerica sent photographers all around the country, capturing images of air pollution and trash-filled rivers, but also the people.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd so there are pictures of long-haired hitchhikers, powder blue leisure suits and big cars. After being forgotten in archives for decades, the Documerica photos are featured in an exhibition now on at the National Archives. Joining us to discuss this is Bruce Bustard. He is senior curator with the National Archives. Bruce Bustard, thank you for joining us.
MR. BRUCE BUSTARDThank you for having me. It's great to be here.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Victoria Hampshire. Tory Hampshire is the daughter of Gifford Hampshire, who created the original Documerica project at the Environmental Protection Agency. Thank you so much for joining us.
MS. VICTORIA HAMPSHIREAnd thank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso joining us by phone from Tarrytown, N.Y. is Barbara Shubinski. She is a research fellow at the Rockefeller Archive Center. She wrote her dissertation on the EPA's Documerica project. Barbara Shubinski, thank you for joining us.
MS. BARBARA SHUBINSKIThanks for having me. Great to be here.
NNAMDII should mention that the Documerica exhibit is at the National Archives. That's located at Constitution and 7th Street Northwest here in Washington, and it goes through Sept. 8. Bruce, I'll start with you. Documerica was the brainchild of former EPA employee, Gifford Hampshire. Tell us a little bit about his career at the agency and his vision for this project.
BUSTARDWell, Giff Hampshire was a child of the Great Depression. And he grew up in the Great Plain states, where he witnessed a lot of the images that we sort of have in our mind from the Farm Security Administration, the Dust Bowl era. And his father was an amateur photographer, and so he was exposed to photography that way. And then he went to -- off to the Air Corps in World War II. And when he came back, he was a student at the University of Missouri in journalism.
BUSTARDAnd he was especially taken when his professors brought some of the Farm Security Administration photographers into the classroom and to talk with the students. And he got the idea that at that point that he wanted to do something that was a documentary-photography project like the FSA project. And that drive kind of lasted his entire career until he was able to finally do Documerica.
NNAMDITory Hampshire, your dad came into contact with both photography and the Great Depression, as we just heard. This project was made possible because the EPA administrator at the time supported it. Can you talk about the support that your father got early on?
HAMPSHIREYeah. He was exceptionally fortunate. You know, I'm a federal employee. I'm actually here on my lunch hour today to talk to you.
NNAMDIWell, thank you.
HAMPSHIREBut it's not easy to get such a huge project accomplished in the government. He was very lucky that EPA supported him so heavily. Mr. Ruckelshaus was very excited about the project and pretty much gave my father a lot of resources. You know, both procurement and contracting are -- there are very strict rules involved in those two efforts. And so I know that it must have been very difficult for him to launch the project without either a lot of support or a lot of enthusiasm also from the people in those offices at EPA.
NNAMDIBruce, this project was never well-known. In fact, these photos were buried in archives for decades. How did they come to your attention?
BUSTARDBack in 1991, I was working on an exhibit. There was an exhibit about the history of the American West. And I was talking with a colleague of mine, Nick Natanson, who works in our still pictures office, and he -- and I said to him, you know, I'm trying to find photographs that are photographs that aren't just about the sort of mythic West -- cowboys and homesteaders and things like that. He said, well, you know, there's this project that EPA did back in the 1970s, and he said, I think maybe there'll be some photographs there.
BUSTARDAnd I did use some photographs for that show about the American West, and I did use more Documerica photographs in several of the other exhibits that I worked on. But I've always wanted to do a show just on Documerica. And I kept pushing the idea for maybe, I don't know, 15 years or so. And it would get on the schedule for a little bit, and then it would fall off the schedule. And eventually, especially through my boss, Chris Rudy Smith, and also the Archivist of the United States David Ferriero got on the schedule finally, and it stuck.
NNAMDIBarbara, you wrote your dissertation on the Documerica project. You started out looking at the 1930s, but you came across somewhere, a mention of Documerica. It wasn't easy to find out more. Tell us about that.
SHUBINSKIThat's right. I was at the University of Iowa pursuing my doctoral degree. And throughout my undergraduate and master's degrees, I had always worked on the Farm Security Administration photography of the 1930s. So at first, I'd assumed I would do more of that for the dissertation. I then ended up expanding my idea to try to link documentary photography to broader public policy questions.
SHUBINSKIAnd one night, I was putting together a proposal for my advisor, and I wanted to talk about Danny Lyon's photography work for the Southern Documentary project. Danny Lyon, it turns out, was also a photographer for Documerica, but I didn't know about Documerica. I was sort of searching around in some catalogues I had at home. This was all when the Internet was not what it is today.
SHUBINSKIAnd I pulled out a catalogue called Picturing the Century from the National Archives which was -- had its text written by Bruce Bustard. And there was a little breakout essay on Danny Lyon, and I thought, oh, great. And then I saw the word Documerica, and I thought, what is this? And by that point, I had been working on documentary photography in the U.S. for probably a decade. So how could it be that I had never, never heard of this? And that started leading me down the trail to find out more of what it was all about.
NNAMDIThose pictures are now archived online. And, by the way, if you go to our website, kojoshow.org, you can see some of them. But getting a look at these pictures was tough back when you started.
SHUBINSKIOh, yeah, definitely was.
NNAMDIHow did you -- you had to actually go to archives, didn't you?
SHUBINSKII did. You could use an online search engine -- and Bruce might laugh at this -- I think the search engine at the archives has changed two or three different times, you know, since I started my work. And occasionally, I'd have to email him and say, I can't get in. I don't understand what's going on, just as that technology has improved so much.
SHUBINSKIBut back in the day, I could do a little work online, but I had to know what I was looking for. I couldn't just Google Documerica. Once I was in the National Archives' search engine, I had to do it by photographer, so I needed to know who they were. So ultimately, it did really require visiting the archives in a way that it might not today.
NNAMDIWe're having a conversation on the EPA's Documerica project in the 1970s and the individual who started it all, Giff Hampshire. Bruce Bustard, take us back to the 1970s. We tend to forget just how bad pollution was at the time. Can you talk about that?
BUSTARDWe do forget how bad pollution is or was and the sort of great upsurge of interest that there was in environmental issues. In 1969, actually, there were two major events. There was the Santa Barbara oil spill off in California or off of California and then the sort of infamous fire that took place on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. And those are two examples, extreme examples but -- of how terrible the pollution problem was.
BUSTARDAnd you can certainly see those in the Documerica photographs. And, you know, I remember growing up near Cleveland, the terrible polluted water in the river that was near my house. And I, unfortunately, actually swam in it. So I don't know what's going to happen to me. But it was a terrible problem. We take it for granted now that our skies are improved and the water is improved.
NNAMDIYou know, Barbara, the Environmental Protection Agency was created in the year 1970. As we've said, it didn't come out of nowhere. And on April 22, 1970, millions of Americans celebrated the first Earth Day. Here we are, more than 40 years later. Can you talk about the growth of the environmental movement?
SHUBINSKIThe EPA was partly formed, I think, out of the pressure felt at the federal level to do something about problems that were really being brought up by social protest movements of the 1960s. So by the time the EPA is formed out of several already existing federal agencies, the press is giving a lot more popular attention to notions of ecology, to questions about consumerism, plastics, pesticides, pollution, smog.
SHUBINSKIIt's really the sort of social protest movements of the '60s which are largely youth-driven, and you see that connection on Earth Day as well, that it's sort of a student teach-in event to begin with is really starting to force the media, and then, in turn, the government to respond to the American people and what they're worried about.
NNAMDIBarbara Shubinski is a research fellow at the Rockefeller Archives Center. She wrote her dissertation on the EPA's Documerica project. She joins us by phone. Joining us in studio is Victoria, or Tory, Hampshire. She is the daughter of Gifford Hampshire, creator of the original Documerica project at the EPA. And Bruce Bustard is a senior curator with the National Archives. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Here is Nathaniel in Baltimore, Md. Nathaniel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NATHANIELHi. I just wanted to comment that I visited the Documerica show in D.C., and I found it very inspiring. I immediately wanted to be a part of the show because they have an ongoing project online where you can add photos. And my grandfather was one of the original photographers. His name was Jack Horne.
NATHANIELAnd he came up to visit, and we went to the show. And he was very, very excited to be a part of it still today.
NNAMDITo know that it's not only still around but is not hidden in an archive anymore, is now being exhibited. Nathaniel, thank you very much for your call, and convey our greetings to your grandfather.
NATHANIELThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Bruce, besides the environment, there were a number of other major cultural shifts happening in the 1970s. For those who may not recall, tell us a little bit about what else was happening at the time.
BUSTARDWell, the '70s have a little bit of a bad reputation. There are sort of...
BUSTARD...sandwiched between, you know, the great civil rights triumphs and anti-war movements of the 1960s. And the other side, there are the Republican resurgents and Reaganism of the 19 -- leverage buyouts of the 1980s. But, in fact, they really are a very important decade that -- where profound changes really took place in our society. And I'm thinking about things like changes -- the energy crises. I'm thinking about the women's movement, the gay rights movement.
BUSTARDI'm thinking about changes in the American cities, the urban renewal that took place. There are so many things -- some of the things that we think about or identify with the 1960s, for example, changes in fashion and hairstyles and things like that, certainly they happened in the 1960s. But it was in the 1970s when they began to come out into the mainstream. Even my father who was a World War II veteran, by the 1970s, his hair was starting to get a little bit longer, and his sideburns were growing.
NNAMDIWell, one of the things that surprised me about this exhibit was the image that I saw with a range of the images. I gather that's one of the things that surprised you as well, that the Documerica project was in fact broader than the 1930s project that inspired it.
BUSTARDIt was -- it's a very broad project. Certainly a project run by the EPA is going to document things like smog and water pollution and air pollution. But it's also -- has photographs of the sort of styles of the 1970s. There are photographs that show issues like the traffic congestion, that show suburban living, that show the urban crisis and show the African-American community in Chicago or the native community -- Native Americans in Arizona.
BUSTARDSo I was very surprised that it was so broad, and it could be that one reason that people don't know that much about it is that they think, oh, EPA, and it's just going to be pollution and sort of obvious connections like that.
NNAMDIWell, obviously, they did not know Tory Hampshire's dad, Gifford Hampshire, because what you are about to hear is a little bit about his vision for this project. And when we're finished hearing that, then, Tory, maybe you can tell us a little bit more about him. So let's hear a clip from a 1998 interview with the creator of this program, Gifford Hampshire. He talks about what he envisioned for the project.
MR. GIFFORD HAMPSHIREThe idea was to put these photographers, qualified photographers, out on the field on subjects that were related to what EPA was trying to deal with and give them freedom, complete freedom to document the subject for a certain amount a number of days. It was to be a legitimate documentary effort for the agency. So I told these photographers, just remember, all of these environment problems have a human side to them. All the time we were doing Documerica, we were trying to show the human condition that resulted from the environmental conditions that were causing that.
NNAMDIIt is clear, Tory Hampshire, that your father was just as interested in people as he was in the environment.
HAMPSHIREHe was. He was the person who always believed in -- that everyone should have a fair chance. And I think he was enormously grateful for the chances that he received through his service in World War II. He was very grateful for his education that came through the G.I. bill, and he was grateful for the work opportunities. But he was constantly preaching the need to make sure that women and minorities had a fair chance. And he was -- for a person who was fairly conservative in his clothing and his music, he was very liberal in other respects.
NNAMDISee, there's that '70s music thing creeping in there again.
HAMPSHIRENo. It might have been that, yeah.
NNAMDIHe wasn't a disco guy. OK.
HAMPSHIREHe wasn't -- he was not in disco, but he tolerated it. But he was a great tolerator of all people and all things.
NNAMDIOne of these images, Bruce, shows a Birmingham neighborhood. Can you describe that picture and what you find interesting about it?
BUSTARDThis is a photograph taken by a photographer by the name of Leroy Woodson, and his assignment was to photograph the air pollution problem in Birmingham, Ala. Chiefly, the problem was caused by the steel mills that were...
NNAMDIThey used to call it Pipe City.
BUSTARDThat's right. That used to be in Birmingham, Ala.
BUSTARDAnd in some ways, it's a typical photograph because it shows the pollution problem. It shows a man walking in a neighborhood, and he is very obscured by the pollution and the background of the house. And then -- and there's a kid's gym behind him, and you can barely see that also. It -- for me, it does two things.
BUSTARDIt has -- it reminds me of a great Farm Security Administration photograph by Arthur Rothstein, who was actually an adviser to Documerica, of a father and a son running through a dust storm. But it also, I think, captures Giff Hampshire's idea of the human connection that he was looking for, the -- that this pollution affects individuals, and it affects communities and neighborhoods.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join the conversation, 800-433-8850. Here is Gina in Washington, D.C. Gina, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GINAHi, everyone. This is a fantastic program. I'm really excited to see Documerica because I consider it a great time, not the decade that was lost. For me, it was actually lost the year before by Woodstock, which...
NNAMDIYou had to bring that up, didn't you? But go ahead, please.
GINASo -- well, that lost me all the way to -- from Connecticut, where I grew up, to Northern California, to what I told my parents was a group house.
GINABut actually it was probably more like a commune. But it also turned me on to healthy living. I've never changed from that, organic food. And I don't grow -- well, I do grow my own on the seventh-floor balcony where I live, but not enough to survive on. But I remember Sunday. I remember Earth Day.
GINAI remember moving to Washington in the mid-'70s and being horrified by the Potomac, just -- I -- and I didn't know how to be an activist then. I tried. I talked to a number of fairly high-level officials, trying to get something going, but I didn't really know how to do that. I'm a little better at it now. But...
NNAMDIWell, Barbara Shubinski, that's one of the points you, I guess, underlined earlier, and that is we should also remember this decade for the fact that it introduced people like Gina to what is now a widespread environmental movement.
SHUBINSKIYeah, absolutely. A number of books kind of popped through to become best-sellers, as well as getting sort of mainstream magazine coverage. So you might remember things like "Population Bomb" or Stewart Brand's "Whole Earth Catalog."
SHUBINSKIThere were just all -- this real explosion of publications that were grappling all across the political spectrum, really, from communes, getting off the grid, those kinds of questions, to ever-increasing population and sort of popular consumption habits that would have been typical to a suburban middle-class person who wasn't necessarily trying to get off the grid. It was kind of hitting everybody at every level.
NNAMDIGot an email from Jonathan in D.C., who writes, "Has anyone gone back to the locations in those photos to see what's happened to the polluted areas? Would the EPA conduct a crowd-sourced version of the effort today? It seems like a great way to raise awareness of ongoing environmental pollution."
BUSTARDThe EPA has created a crowd-sourcing project that's called State of the Environment. If you Google EPA and State of the Environment, I'm going to guess you're going to come up with it.
NNAMDIWe have a link to that, yes?
BUSTARDAnd they have invited people to photograph their vision of the environment today, and thousands of people have responded. And they have also invited people to do a kind of a then and now exercise where photographers go out and they find the spot where a Documerica photograph was taken, and they re-photograph. And some of those photographs are in a video in the Searching for the Seventies exhibit.
NNAMDIBruce, you mentioned another photo of Great Kills Park on Staten Island. Can you describe that picture and tell us what interests you about it?
BUSTARDThis is a photograph by a man by the name of Arthur Tress. And he photographed Staten Island and Long Island. He was especially interested in issues of -- about suburbia and in consumption. And this photograph shows a -- what, to me, is a very kind of typical 1970s suburban neighborhood series of white houses of, I guess you would say, eclectic style, different styles put together. And you can see them kind of one after another, and they all look very much the same. And actually, I think Barb has written a lot about Arthur Tress's project.
NNAMDII was about to say you've written about this photographer, and you've also written about attitudes toward suburbs that were beginning to surface in the 1970s. Can you talk a little bit about that, Barbara?
SHUBINSKIYeah. That was one of the real surprises in some ways of the Documerica project. And it might still be surprising to people who are just coming to it and may be thinking environmentalism is always going to be oil spills or smog. Of course, that's linked to suburbia with automobile commuting. And you saw a lot of anxiety about that in the early '70s.
SHUBINSKIAnd so what really surprises me was how much the broad conception of the environmental movement, you know, kind of across all these photographers and through Gifford Hampshire's direction that, yeah, sure, it was about destruction of wilderness, water pollution, all of that. But it was equally as much about anxieties over a rapidly changing landscape.
SHUBINSKIYou know, what are all these parking lots and these malls and these tracts of suburban homes that are eating into the countryside all about? And that was absolutely as much of an anxiety. There is a lot of focus on aesthetic beauty, things like billboards, you know, things cluttering the roadside, visual pollution. I was lucky enough to interview Giff Hampshire before he passed away.
SHUBINSKIAnd I'm just so, so fortunate for that. And I remember him saying to me, affluence and suburbia are now the causes of these problems. And that's different from the '30s. And he said, you know, this Levittown thing started happening, and that's where it seemed to all start to go wrong. So more than you might assume, anxiety over suburbanization is very much present in Documerica.
NNAMDICan't leave without talking about one important aspect of the '70s -- another picture highlights something those of us who lived through the '70s remember very well -- the fuel shortages.
BUSTARDYes. The first fuel crisis happened about 1973...
BUSTARD...and one of the first Documerica photographers to document this was a man by the name of David Falconer, who went out to the Pacific Northwest. And he took a lot of photographs of men standing in line with their -- holding a gas can and their thumb out hitchhiking or long lines of...
NNAMDIThis is guy in this photo is not holding a gas can.
BUSTARDLong lines of cars waiting for gas. But this guy is -- and his son are standing in front of their Buick Skylark, and he's got a revolver in his hand. And there's a sign that says, gas stealers beware, we're loaded for bear. And we -- one thing I had forgotten about, even though I lived through the 1970s, was the start of gas caps that could be locked.
NNAMDIGet off my gas tank.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Bruce Bustard is a senior curator with the National Archives. Tory Hampshire is the daughter of Gifford Hampshire, creator of the original Documerica project at the EPA in the 1970s. And Barbara Shubinski is a research fellow at the Rockefeller Archive Center. She wrote her dissertation on Documerica. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be talking about Davy Crockett, the man behind the legend.
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