The legacy of Documerica


Here at High Country News, we’ve been reading and writing a lot about how the federal funding cuts from sequestration will hit home in the West. But as usual, it takes a personal experience to make things real. For me, it came while sitting on a pit toilet at a Bureau of Land Management trailhead outside Fruita, Colo., this past weekend. Taped to the inside door was a sign informing us that, due to budget and staffing cutbacks, the BLM would not be servicing restrooms as often. I looked around: the bathroom still seemed pretty clean, but I made a mental note to bring my own toilet paper supply in the future to keep austerity from interfering with my ability to wipe.

All this sequestration talk has me waxing nostalgic for the days when the federal government funded more than just essential programs and services (although even that isn’t happening right now). It even used to fund creativity. One long-lost program that comes to mind from the 1970s is Documerica, the newly-formed Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt to build support for its mission and document environmental issues around the country.

Hunters taking their deer back to Denver must stop at check station north of Rifle, where their kill is counted and examined. 1972. Credit: David Hiser.

The project was the brainchild of Gifford Hampshire, a former National Geographic photo editor who ended up in public affairs at the EPA. Hampshire had been deeply inspired by the work of photographers working for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression, and thought the EPA could do for the environment what the FSA had done for rural poverty and agriculture. He successfully lobbied then-EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus to let him hire a cadre of freelance photojournalists to establish baseline documentation of environmental problems and successes in America in 1972. But Hampshire ultimately asked them to think bigger than that. As the guidelines to photographers read: “Look for pictures wherever you are, for whatever purpose. Where you see people, there's an environmental element to which they are connected. The great Documerica pictures will show the connection and what it means.”

For two years, photographers spanned out across the country, sending shipments of negatives to the EPA headquarters in Washington. They captured the gas shortage in the Northwest, uranium mining in Colorado, life on the Navajo Nation and noise pollution in Boston. But politics soon put an end to the program: After Ruckleshaus left the EPA in the height of the Watergate scandal, support for Documerica diminished. Hampshire soon “found an EPA wallowing in a morass of ineffectiveness due to political/industry pressures on a leadership without a clear sense of mission. My superiors cared only for their own security. There was no sense of purpose. No fire-in-the-belly … Documerica was just a file now,” he wrote in his memoir.

Documerica, then and now. Earthships in Taos, New Mexico in 1972 and 2011. Credit: David Hiser and Dan Conlin.

Four years ago, a National Archives employee stumbled across the collection and began to publicize it. Since then, the archive has digitized many of the photos and created a daily photo blog of “awesome” photos from the project. In 2011, the EPA launched the State of the Environment Photo Project, inviting people around the country to capture the environmental issues of our time and to re-create scenes captured 40 years ago by Documerica photographers (unlike the original, none of the photographers will be paid). You can see these photos on EPA’s Flickr stream.

For me, the legacy of Documerica is multi-fold: It’s a window into America at the birth of the environmental movement, an inspiring tale of how one passionate person can cut through bureaucracy to create something beautiful, and a reminder that government can be innovative and creative—if we let it. It’s a nice memory to keep in mind in this age of austerity.

Here are a few photos from the Documerica project. To see more, visit the U.S. Archive's Documerica Flickr page.


Irrigated by water from the Colorado River, newly planted cotton field near needles will produce fast results in the hot desert climate, May 1972. Credit: Charles O'Rear.

Gasoline stations abandoned during the fuel crisis in the winter of 1973-74 were sometimes used for other purposes. This station at Potlatch, Washington, was turned into a religious meeting hall. April 1974. Credit: David Falconer.

Young Rial Redding, third generation of Reddings who have ranched in Sarpy Basin, Montana, joins the resistance movement. The Reddings have refused to sell to the Westmoreland Coal Company, June 1973. Credit: Boyd Norton.

A dump outside Moab, Utah. The La Sal Mountains, considered a recreational asset, rise in the background, May 1972. Credit: David Hiser.

Emily Guerin is the assistant online editor at High Country News.

All photos courtesy The U.S. National Archives.

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