Sorry No Gas: Photos from Documerica, 1972 – 1975

Exhibit / March 27, 2018

Object Name: Documerica Project
Maker and Year: Various, under the auspices of the Environmental Protection Agency, 1972-1975
Object Type: Photographs
Image Source: DOCUMERICA Project (Flickr)
Description: (Michael Grasso)

At the dawning of the 1970s, Americans were more aware than ever of the great damage more than a century of unrestricted industry had done to their country. With the passing of Richard Nixon’s Reorganization Plan Number 3 by Congress in 1970, the U.S. government welcomed the Environmental Protection Agency to the roster of federal agencies. The EPA was meant to consolidate federal efforts to protect America’s air, water, and soil, and to give environmental protection efforts a fiercer executive independence.

In the early years of the EPA, the agency’s mandate was expressed equally in terms of the health outcomes of alleviating pollution and of improving American “aesthetics.” In the predecessor act to Nixon’s Reorganization Plan—the National Environmental Policy Act—the federal government’s role as protector of American natural resources was partially to “assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and esthetically (sic) and culturally pleasing surroundings.” It was from these impulses of concern about how America looked in its late industrial period—echoed by other public service campaigns on television—that a project called “Documerica” was proposed in late 1971. Documerica brought together dozens of American photographers to illuminate the diversity of American landscapes suffering under pollution. In the manner of New Deal programs like the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Project Number One (which supported and nurtured both artistic projects and humanities research throughout the 1930s) and the photographic efforts of the Farm Security Administration (which allowed photographers like Dorothea Lange to take iconic images of America’s Dust Bowl years), Documerica gave federal support to a program meant to inform, inspire, and educate the public. That this happened under silent majority-winner Richard Nixon—along with many other initiatives that would be termed “progressive” examples of government “activism” today—is one of Cold War American history’s greater ironies.

The photographers were given wide latitude to interpret Documerica’s mandate. Some of them took to the middle of the country. Charles O’Rear followed the trail of recently-nationalized Amtrak (also a Nixon initiative from 1970) passenger train lines throughout the interior of the continent, spending quite a bit of time in both small town and rural Nebraska. In some cases, the documentarians managed to be live on the scene for various environmental disasters. Bill Strode, a professional photographer with many top publications to his credit, documented his native Ohio River valley region near Louisville, Kentucky, and found himself on the spot for a massive chlorine spill on a barge on the Ohio River in March of 1972.

Other photographers took on the task of documenting life in America’s great urban centers. The ongoing environmental disaster in the waters of New York Harbor was the subject of Arthur Tress’s series; the contrast of the seaside attractions, restaurants, and longtime fishers on the waterfront with scenes of shocking pollution—rusted-out chassis of entire cars floating in Jamaica Bay—had a pointedly activist composition. John H. White took a look at the vibrant Black culture of the South Side of Chicago, including musical performances, summer recreation activities on Lake Michigan, and cultural and political gatherings like the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH events.

David Falconer was taking photos in Oregon, Washington and Idaho in the midst of the 1973-1974 oil crisis and managed to capture the anxieties of a nation, long addicted to petroleum, beginning to realize that the spigot could be shut off at any moment. Energy conservation suddenly became a huge component to the nascent ecological movement. In many of the photos selected above, we can see local grassroots efforts by businesses, local government, and individuals to spread the word about the conservation of electricity, heat, and other precious energy resources provided by the burning of fossil fuels. In the aftermath of the energy crisis and the establishment of the EPA, new standards for automobile emissions were ushered in; Lyntha Scott Eiler took photos of these new standards as they hit Middle American car culture in Ohio. Electric car prototypes feature prominently in Frank Lodge’s shots of the 1973 Symposium on Low Pollution Power Systems Development in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ann Arbor was home to the EPA’s National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory (located close to the then-still-dominant Big Three automakers in Detroit).

The Documerica project is a startlingly encyclopedic visual testament of the America of the early 1970s. Through the prism of environmental pollution and a new civic sense of environmental stewardship, we see a snapshot of all kinds of American lives. The ecumenicalism of the project’s subject matter provides a profound and implicit lesson about America’s diverse populations and landscapes, ironically the same ideology President Kennedy had used to find common ground with the Soviet Union ten years earlier: “Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” Documerica seems almost like a last gasp for that kind of New Frontier optimism and universalism, before Watergate and America’s final defeat in Southeast Asia dashed those utopian dreams for good.

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