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Stunning images of America's environments are returning to public view -- and acclaim

Reserve Mining's discharges of taconite tailings pour into Lake Superior at Silver Bay, June 1973.
Photo by Donald Emmerich
Reserve Mining's discharges of taconite tailings pour into Lake Superior at Silver Bay, June 1973.

As a dazzling catalog of this country’s myriad environments, often under siege, the DOCUMERICA project would be hard to top.

Just now returning to public view, DOCUMERICA’s 80,000 images form a stunning record of American life, work and landscape at the dawn of modern environmental consciousness, in the early 1970s.

Over the next year they will be coming out of the National Archives for a series of traveling displays. But already some 15,000 images – including more than 500 made in Minnesota – can be viewed online.

Grain dust from elevator operations hangs over the harbor at Duluth/Superior, June 1973.
Photo by Donald Emmerich
Grain dust from elevator operations hangs over the harbor at Duluth/Superior, June 1973.

DOCUMERICA’s history is summarized neatly in a recent New York Times article. Key points:

The project was commissioned in 1971 as special initiative of the year-old Environmental Protection Agency, with the primary purpose of creating a photographic “baseline” of environmental problems EPA was preparing to address. Over time, subsequent pictures would document the nation’s progress on cleaning up its mistakes.

However, DOCUMERICA wanted its photographers to go for panoramas, not mere mugshots of sewage outflow. And out of allegiance to Barry Commoner’s First Law of Ecology – “Everything is connected to everything else” – it wanted them to capture the context of environmental concerns, documenting broadly the ways Americans were linked to these places through their labors and leisure.

DOCUMERICA’s charmingly plain-spoken guidelines, archived here by the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, urged the photographers to trust their own intelligence and “honestly document the environmental happenings and non-happenings of the decade.”

Money, apparently, was not a problem: DOCUMERICA hired many of the nation’s top freelance photographers, often raiding the roster at National Geographic (which had also employed DOCUMERICA’s director, Gifford Hampshire).

Among the notable contributors were Danny Lyon, perhaps best-known for his “Conversations With the Dead,” and Bill Strode and John H. White, who won Pulitzers for their photojournalism.

Hampshire has said his notion of DOCUMERICA was inspired in part by the famed Depression-era photographs made by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks and others in a project of the Farm Security Administration. A selection of 46 images assembled by The Atlantic magazine not long ago is, to my eye, of comparable impact.

Fishing on Minnesota's Red Lake, June 1973.
Photo by Jonas Dovydenas
Fishing on Minnesota's Red Lake, June 1973.

One of the project’s more intriguing chapters was created not by seasoned professionals but by college students from the University of Missouri, including my old Strib colleague Bruce Bisping.

Missouri’s photojournalism faculty included Flip Schulke, a New Ulm native. In October 1974 he took a dozen students back home to photograph life in and around that community. Of the images they contributed to DOCUMERICA, nearly 300 can be seen online (tips on searching below).

A New Ulm farmer dispenses beer to volunteer firefighters after they extinguished a brushfire, October 1974.
Photo by Bruce Bisping
A New Ulm farmer dispenses beer to volunteer firefighters after they extinguished a brushfire, October 1974.

While DOCUMERICA may have fulfilled its purpose of establishing an environmental baseline, it didn’t continue long enough to record much progress.

William Ruckelshaus, EPA’s first administrator and DOCUMERICA’s champion, left that post after a few years, and budget-cutting became the order of the day in Washington. And so, in 1977, DOCUMERICA came to an end – begun under a Republican president who didn’t much care about the environment, it got the ax under a Democrat who did.

Its collected images went into the National Archives and rested there, more or less forgotten, until Jerry Simmons, who works in an Archives division called NARA, won support for posting 15,000 or so on the NARA website. They are also available via flickr.com, and Simmons puts up images on his DailyDOCUMERICA tumblr page.

Junked farm equipment at Karlstad, Minn., June 1973.
Photo by Jonas Dovydenas
Junked farm equipment at Karlstad, Minn., June 1973.

A major exposition of the DOCUMERICA images is planned for March 2013, and EPA has launched a “State of the Environment” photo project in hopes of getting citizen-photographers to update the record with contemporary shots of places in the baseline photos.

Unfortunately, most of the photographers participating so far seem more interested in promoting their businesses by putting up lovely images that showcase their abilities but seldom contribute much to updating DOCUMERICA.

Still, the new project’s director, Jeanethe Falvey, thinks the new and old photographs taken together may have a useful impact on contemporary environmental consciousness, which has lost much of its hopefulness, or confidence, since the early 1970s.

Falvey told Greenwire that the goal is to instill a “greater sense of responsibility” for the environment, adding:

"Right now, I think we're hoping that the public just goes out and enjoys and appreciates the environment. We won't protect what we don't know, what we don't experience."

Junked cars along the banks of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, June 1973.
Photo by Donald Emmerich
Junked cars along the banks of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, June 1973.

As for Ruckelshaus, he told Greenwire he hopes renewed exposure of DOCUMERICA’s images can bolster EPA’s ability to defend  against relentless attacks on its regulatory mission:

"We still have environmental problems, but they're not the ones that people notice," Ruckelshaus said, adding that "subtler" forms of pollution have taken the place of the "see, taste and smell" problems of the 1960s.

"Using these photographs or new ones to recreate some of that atmosphere ... could alert the public to what the agency mission is and why it was created in the first place."

Teenagers are barely visible in the field where they are detassling corn near New Ulm, Minn., July 1974.
Photo by Flip Schulke
Teenagers are barely visible in the field where they are detassling corn near New Ulm, Minn., July 1974.

Digging into DOCUMERICA
For a scan of random images from the project, the quickest access might be through the flickr or tumblr links mentioned above. But for more focused viewing, here are a couple of alternatives:

To search by location, in predetermined categories like “Minneapolis” or “Minnesota” or “Mississippi River,” I recommend you go to this page at National Archives and click on the location you want.

For a custom search, go to the Archives’ Online Public Access page and then:

  • Enter your search terms – like minnesota, or bisping, or “new ulm” – in the top box.
  • Below that, in the list headed Online Public Access Services, uncheck everything except the fourth item, Archival Descriptions with Digital Objects.
  • Scroll down and find the fourth box from the bottom, Record Group Number. Enter 412 (that’s the number National Archive uses for EPA records)
  • Hit the Search button.

And if you come across something particularly interesting, you might consider sharing your find in the comments below.

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Comments (3)

Nice post, thanks for doing this! Anyone who looks back at the great images from WPA done during the '30's will enjoy going through these sites.

thanks

We forget how bad it was.

I am from Babbitt. Though the environmental lawsuit against Reserve Mining threatened our livelihood, I think we can call the Milepost 7 site a successful remediation. Jobs remain, in spite of questionable past management and cheap Brazilian iron. Regulation is necessary!

I've been through many of these photos. Too many of us simply do not remember.

Yet we have 'free trade' with nations that still allow industry to pee in their environment.