"Searching for the Seventies: The DOCUMERICA Photography Project"

July 15, 2013

Book Shelf


Searching for the Seventies: The DOCUMERICA Photography Project

By Bruce I. Bustard
D Giles Ltd., $35


During its infancy in the 1970s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency embarked on a campaign to document the state of America’s environment through photographs,to create a visual baseline against which all future environmental changes could be compared.

Project Documerica, backed by the first EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus, was the visionary idea of Gifford Hampshire, a former National Geographic picture editor who wanted to do for the environment what the Works Progress Administration photographers had done for American agriculture in the 1930s.

For the next few years, more than a hundred photographers, drawn mostly from the ranks of freelancers, were contracted. An edited set of approximately 22,000 color transparencies emerged. But Documerica was cut short by Ruckelshaus’departure. Funding dried up, and assignments ceased. The image collection eventually found its way to the National Archives in College Park, Md.

Now, in commemoration of the EPA’s 40th anniversary, the Archives has mounted an exhibit of Documerica imagery, and released the book, whose author Bruce Bustard is a senior curator there.

The book includes more than 100 photographs and profiles of several of the photographers, many of whom went on to gain prominence as journalists. There also is a forward by Ruckelshaus.Despite some shortcomings, it is a remarkable document — the collective summation of more than 100 image makers bent on documenting what they believed were the most important environmental issues to record for history.

Roger Archibald is SEJournal’s photo editor. In 1975, he met with Documerica Director Gifford Hampshire, seeking to join the project, without success. He wrote at length about Documerica in the cover story of the Winter 2011-12 SEJournal.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2013. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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