Images of everyday life in 1970s America: disco dancing and inflation, protests and bell-bottoms, gas shortages and suburban sprawl. At a time when the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal wore on the national psyche, a burgeoning movement to protect our natural environment was gaining force.
In 1971, the newly established U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched the DOCUMERICA Photography Project with the goal of documenting environmental troubles and triumphs across the country. Gifford Hampshire, the Project’s Director, envisioned a broad scope. Inspired by the Farm Security Administration's photography project of the 1930s and 40s, he encouraged his photographers to capture "the human connection" to the environment, from small towns in coal country to urban streetscapes. “Where you see people,” he told them, “there’s an environmental element to which they are connected.”
About 70 photographers, including Flip Schulke, John Corn, Danny Lyon, John H. White, and Lyntha Scott Eiler completed 115 separate assignments between 1972 and 1977. What emerged was a moving and textured portrait of America. Capturing a rapidly changing society with surprising resonances to the present, Searching for the Seventies: The DOCUMERICA Photography Project presents a sampling of images culled from a trove of thousands.
The exhibition’s three sections are named after popular songs of the time. “Ball of Confusion” documents the tumultuous environmental, political, and social reality of the 1970s. The energy crises, slow economic growth, and high unemployment were themes pursued by many of the photographers. They brought issues such as the future of cities, gender equality, abortion, and gay rights into crisp focus.
“Everybody Is a Star” showcases vibrant and diverse examples of self-expression – bell-bottoms, bare midriffs, mini dresses, and bright colors – all were in stark contrast to the buttoned-up fashions and accompanying societal norms of the 1950s and early 60s. The ethos of the 1970s was “do your own thing.” Some of the DOCUMERICA photographers were drawn to subjects, which emphasized growing appreciation of ethnic and cultural diversity.
The third section, “Pave Paradise,” illustrates the fragmented landscape of America in the 1970s. Much as today, many Americans had romanticized notions of an idyllic life in small-town America. But small-town reality was often one of poverty, pollution, and quickly dwindling populations. The photographers also exposed the stark differences between sprawling suburbs and crumbling inner cities of the 1970s. They trained their cameras on the great vistas and natural beauty of the American landscape, capturing the threat of development and environmental damage done in the name of progress.
Searching for the Seventies: The DOCUMERICA Photography Project is a collaboration between SITES and the National Archives and Records Administration which now holds the original DOCUMERICA photographic materials and records. The archival records and some 22,000 slides, in addition to negatives, prints, and microfiche, are stored in the stacks of the National Archives in College Park, MD. You can browse through almost 16,000 of the DOCUMERICA images on the Archives' website and Flickr.
Searching for the Seventies is easy to install, has a modest fee, and is sure to book quickly, with particular appeal for Presidential libraries, history museums, college and university museums, and those interested in environmental studies.