The Picture Show
9:50 am
Wed April 10, 2013

Do We Need A New Documerica?

Originally published on Mon April 15, 2013 5:47 pm

Sometimes, just for fun, I will honestly do this: I will go to the Documerica archive on Flickr and just wade through the photos. I have done this many times, yet even still, I feel like I've only seen a fraction of it. And each time I do it, I find a new favorite. Like this guy:

Documerica was a simple concept. In the 1970s, a newly created Environmental Protection Agency hired a bunch of freelancers to document environmental issues around the country. It wasn't the first time the government had subsidized photography. A few decades prior, the Farm Security Administration sponsored a similar program to catalog the Great Depression.

But in some ways, it was unprecedented. For one, enthusiasm within the environmental movement, which catalyzed the creation of the EPA, was at its height — which meant interest in (and support for) this kind of program was more palpable than ever.

Plus, Gifford Hampshire, the man who created Documerica, basically gave photographers free rein to shoot whatever they wanted. (Imagine, photographers: Getting paid to hit the road and capture America in your own, personal way.)

Hampshire had grown up during the Depression and was keenly interested in the FSA photographs. His father had been a photographer, and before joining the EPA as its public affairs director, he had been a photo editor at National Geographic and a magazine editor for the Food and Drug Administration. Needless to say, he was a champion for photography.

Documerica lasted through the late 1970s, and there's never really been anything like it since. Maybe interest dwindled and, more likely, the funding did, too. It would probably be hard to argue for a similar program today. Why should tax money go toward photography when it's already is everywhere? Documentation of our times is constantly refreshing on Instagram.

But there's something special about this collection of photos. Although Hampshire gave little instruction to his photographers, he hired some of the best. And although the scope is unwieldy, there's still some method to the madness. It got me wondering about what kind of photographic legacy this decade will leave behind.

It's hard to say what the immediate impact of Documerica was, if anything. But its lasting legacy is, well, an archive that is both contained and sprawling all at once. The National Archives has taken a stab at curating some of the best images in an exhibition, Searching For The Seventies, which will be up through September in Washington, D.C.

And although it's impossible to really pare it down, here are some of my favorites from my most recent dig through Flickr. But if you find yourself with some free time, explore the images yourself. And share your favorites in the comments!

Update April 15: Latosha Thomas at the EPA wrote me an email explaining a related, modern photo project called State of the Environment. It's basically a Flickr group that encourages photographers to make current versions of original Documerica photos. They've even put together a "Documerica Then and Now" set with some of the submissions, making side-by-side comparisons.

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