Daily Picture Show

Do We Need A New Documerica?

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:

Hitchhiker with his dog, Tripper, on Route 66, Ariz,. May 1972.

Hitchhiker with his dog, Tripper, on Route 66, Ariz,. May 1972. Charles O'Rear/U.S. National Archives hide caption

itoggle caption Charles O'Rear/U.S. National Archives

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.

  • Setting up a camera at Anticline Overlook in Canyonlands National Park, San Juan County, Utah.
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    Setting up a camera at Anticline Overlook in Canyonlands National Park, San Juan County, Utah.
    David Hiser/U.S. National Archives
  • Commercial camping sites and travel trailer courts have sprung up throughout the Florida Keys — even on the smaller ones like Little Duck.
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    Commercial camping sites and travel trailer courts have sprung up throughout the Florida Keys — even on the smaller ones like Little Duck.
    Flip Schulke/U.S. National Archives
  • Lunch in the car — Hylan Boulevard, Staten Island.
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    Lunch in the car — Hylan Boulevard, Staten Island.
    Arthur Tress/U.S. National Archives
  • Playground, Philadelphia, August 1973.
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    Playground, Philadelphia, August 1973.
    Dick Swanson/U.S. National Archives
  • Youngsters in Cincinnati want the photographer to take "just one more" picture, 1973.
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    Youngsters in Cincinnati want the photographer to take "just one more" picture, 1973.
    Tom Hubbard/U.S. National Archives
  • First Communion at St. Joan of Arc church, May 1972.
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    First Communion at St. Joan of Arc church, May 1972.
    Charles O'Rear/U.S. National Archives
  • Harvesting wheat in the Palo Verde Valley, Calif., May 1972.
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    Harvesting wheat in the Palo Verde Valley, Calif., May 1972.
    Charles O'Rear/U.S. National Archives
  • Swimming in Havasu Lake between Arizona and California, May 1972.
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    Swimming in Havasu Lake between Arizona and California, May 1972.
    Charles O'Rear/U.S. National Archives
  • Contaminated water in a drainage ditch behind Pittsburgh Glass Co., Louisiana, 1972.
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    Contaminated water in a drainage ditch behind Pittsburgh Glass Co., Louisiana, 1972.
    Marc St. Gil/U.S. National Archives
  • Teenage couple on the bank of the Frio Canyon River near Leakey, Texas.
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    Teenage couple on the bank of the Frio Canyon River near Leakey, Texas.
    Marc St. Gil/U.S. National Archives
  • El Paso, Texas
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    El Paso, Texas
    Danny Lyon/U.S. National Archives
  • Smoking marijuana near Leakey, Texas.
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    Smoking marijuana near Leakey, Texas.
    Marc St. Gil/U.S. National Archives
  • El Paso, Texas
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    El Paso, Texas
    Danny Lyon/U.S. National Archives
  • Wreckage from flooding of Guadalupe River, New Braunfels, Texas.
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    Wreckage from flooding of Guadalupe River, New Braunfels, Texas.
    Bill Reaves/U.S. National Archives
  • Arches National Park, Utah, 1972.
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    Arches National Park, Utah, 1972.
    David Hiser/U.S. National Archives
  • Oxford Paper Co. Mill on the Androscoggin River, Lewiston, Maine, 1973.
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    Oxford Paper Co. Mill on the Androscoggin River, Lewiston, Maine, 1973.
    Charles Steinhacker/U.S. National Archives
  • The Atlas Chemical Co. belches smoke across pastureland, 1972.
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    The Atlas Chemical Co. belches smoke across pastureland, 1972.
    Marc St. Gil/U.S. National Archives
  • The cook at Texan Cafe, Rifle, Colo., 1973.
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    The cook at Texan Cafe, Rifle, Colo., 1973.
    David Hiser/U.S. National Archives
  • Miners wait to start their shift at Virginia-Pocahontas Coal Co. near Richlands, Va., 1974.
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    Miners wait to start their shift at Virginia-Pocahontas Coal Co. near Richlands, Va., 1974.
    Jack Corn/U.S. National Archives
  • A teenager works cornfields near Ulm, Minn.
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    A teenager works cornfields near Ulm, Minn.
    Flip Schulke/U.S. National Archives
  • Interior of the 3M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing) Co. plant in Minnesota.
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    Interior of the 3M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing) Co. plant in Minnesota.
    Flip Schulke/U.S. National Archives
  • Girls in Lynch Park, Brooklyn, N.Y., 1974.
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    Girls in Lynch Park, Brooklyn, N.Y., 1974.
    Danny Lyon/U.S. National Archives
  • Crossing "the painted road," which extends east from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973.
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    Crossing "the painted road," which extends east from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973.
    Dick Swanson/U.S. National Archives
  • Beads for sale, Navajo Indian Reservation, Coconino County, Ariz.
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    Beads for sale, Navajo Indian Reservation, Coconino County, Ariz.
    Terry Eiler/U.S. National Archives
  • Henri Aki takes his horse for a late afternoon ride through pineapple fields, near Lanai City, Hawaii, 1973
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    Henri Aki takes his horse for a late afternoon ride through pineapple fields, near Lanai City, Hawaii, 1973
    Charles O'Rear/U.S. National Archives
  • The annual junior rodeo on the Colorado River Indian Reservation in Yuma County, Ariz., 1972
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    The annual junior rodeo on the Colorado River Indian Reservation in Yuma County, Ariz., 1972
    Charles O'Rear/U.S. National Archives
  • Midtown skyline of New York City, seen from Queens, 1974.
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    Midtown skyline of New York City, seen from Queens, 1974.
    Danny Lyon/U.S. National Archives
  • Diving into the Colorado River at Parker Strip, a favorite swimming spot of Southern Californians and Arizonians, April 1973, Yuma County, Ariz.
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    Diving into the Colorado River at Parker Strip, a favorite swimming spot of Southern Californians and Arizonians, April 1973, Yuma County, Ariz.
    Charles O'Rear/U.S. National Archives

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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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