The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Project Documerica: A Portrait of the 1970s Environmental Movement

In 1971, as the environmental movement was reaching critical mass, the Environmental Protection Agency hired a slew of freelance photographers to capture the environmental problems, EPA activities and everyday life of the ’70s. For seven years, the 81 photographers traveled around the country, producing what became known as Project Documerica — a fascinating and deeply insightful cultural portrait of one of the most important decades in modern history.

Thirty years later, The U.S. National Archives have digitized more than 15,000 of these photographs and made them publicly available in the Archival Research Catalog, as well as on the National Archives’ impressively excellent Flickr library.

From the booming industrialism to the ripening of hyper-consumerism to nature’s ever-more-timid cameos in daily life, the series captures the beginning of our industry-driven environmental demise — with the earnest lucidity of an era that can’t even begin to imagine what’s to come.

Subsets of the series tackle specific themes and issues — like this striking visual record of the car culture boom, which is a bit like looking at the can-tell-it-will-be-hideous-but-can’t-tell-just-how embryo of Godzilla.

Still, some of the photographs offer a welcome respite from the avalanche of consumerism — like this clever experimental wall construction, using empty soda cans to build housing in New Mexico, which reminds us of the Buddhist bottle temple in Thailand.

You can also browse the archive by state for a broad-reaching look across vastly different locations.

Despite the clumsy site navigation and appalling interface, Project Documerica is a rich and impressive record of the patterns, processes and cultural forces that shaped our current era — dig in.

Published February 5, 2010




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