I love April. This month’s showers bring new flowers! There’s Earth Day, and National Rubber Eraser Day, and later this month is National Jelly Bean Day! But it’s mostly a month of holidays celebrating nature and her beauty. I’ve been inspired for years by the tremendous work of Documerica, a photography movement in the 1970s that documented the changing environment of America, for good or for worse. I thought I would share a paper that I spent a year working on, examining various photographic movements that have tried to capture our changing environment.
December 2, 1971– the newly created Environmental Protection Agency launches a nationwide social and environmental photo-documentation project called Documerica. The EPA was founded only the year before at the behest of the Nixon administration, answering the national call to improve the environment.
“Fouling our own nest- we were the easy-come easy-go society, the throw away society, the society that was dependant on convenience goods without regard to its cost to our only world,” wrote Gifford Hampshire in an unpublished memoir (Simmons). Hampshire convinced the EPA’s first administrator, William Ruckelshaus, to establish Documerica and he soon became the Project Director. Hampshire, who grew up “in the middle of the Dust Bowl out there in Kansas,” experienced first hand many of the things that the Farm Security Administration photographers had photographed during the Great Depression (Light). He attended the University of Missouri, and while there, he joined a photography group where former FSA photographers frequently came to speak. Hampshire reflected, “I thought then, and ever since, that the FSA was a benchmark in photographic history. Early on, I had realized that the subject matter of a documentary photographer has nothing to do with sensationalism, nothing to do with the unusual- it has everything to do with the very commonplace events of our lives. All the good documentary work you can think of is perceptive photographs of people doing what they normally do” (Light).
Arthur Rothstein, himself a former FSA photographer, assisted Hampshire in the hiring of photographers for his Documerica project. The FSA was originally established as the Resettlement Administration in 1935 to help relocate poverty-stricken farmers. There were more farmers than farmland in the Dust Bowl and the American government started the FSA to try to help out the country. In the end, many farmers wanted to buy land instead of working on government-owned land, and the FSA was restructured to help farmers purchase land. One of the most well known efforts that emerged from the FSA was a documentary project, with photographers and writers hired to record the plight of the poor across the country. Under Roy Stryker the FSA decided to “[introduce] America to Americans,” and from thence came images that defined the Great Depression and social realism (“Farm Security Administration”).
Social realism is an art movement aggravated by the Great Depression: socio-realism depicted “social and racial injustice [and] economic hardship, through unvarnished pictures of life’s struggles; often depicting the working class as heroic” (“Social Realist”). Photographers such as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange drew attention to the everyday conditions of those living in poverty and made some of the most recognizable images from the FSA: Evans’ “Floyd Burroughs, Alabama Cotton Sharecropper” and “Allie Mae Burroughs, Wife of a Cotton Sharecropper” and Lange’s image of the “Migrant Mother” are easily recognizable social realism photographs. Like images from Documerica, they showed the waste of the land and the struggle of the people to find their place in it. Documerica photographers, such as David Alan Harvey and Arthur Tress, used their work to show American “concern for the survival of the human race,” not unlike the mission of the FSA photographers (“Documerica”).
According to Penelope Dixon, author of Photographs from the Farm Security Administration: An Annotated Bibliography 1930-1980, Stryker did not like Evans (Dixon). Evans worked for the FSA between 1935 and 1937, producing 540 negatives. During that time, Evans had an “egotistical demand to make his own prints” and later cautioned photographers to “never make photographic statements for the government or photographic chores for gov [sic], or anyone in gov [sic], no matter how powerful- this is pure record not propaganda” (Brannan). According to a Wikipedia article, “the photographers were under instruction from Washington as to what overall impression the New Deal wanted to portray. Stryker’s agenda focused on his faith in social engineering, the poor conditions among tenant cotton farmers, and the very poor conditions among migrant farm workers; above all he was committed to social reform through New Deal intervention in people’s lives” (“Farm Security Administration”).
In Stryker’s book In this Proud Land, he was awed by what they accomplished: “To spend all that money (nearly a million dollars) to get all those pictures (nearly 270,000) was something of a bureaucratic miracle” (Peralta). Evans felt so strongly about his work that he continued to make social realist images, resulting in a book about Hale County, Alabama, written with James Agee, called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, about a white sharecropping family living in poverty. Originally on assignment for Fortune magazine, the story never ran, and Evans and Agee later published it themselves.
Lange worked for the FSA off and on from 1935 to 1939, and the FSA archives currently contain 841 negatives of her work on exodus. Initially working in San Francisco, she photographed people in the streets because of “her own growing concern,” causing Dixon to herald Lange as the “supreme humanist” (Dixon). Lange later remarked “upon the significance of the [migrant] phenomenon she had devoted several years to documenting: ‘that was the beginning of the first day of the landslide that cut this continent…this shaking off of people from their own roofs… it was up to that time unobserved” (Brannan). Lange’s work made visual the consequences of the Great Depression and was pivotal in developing the style of documentary photography; “on two occasions, Stryker was forced to suspend her from the payroll for budgetary reasons” because she was so passionate and enthusiastic about her work (Dixon). Gifford Hampshire would later attribute documentary photography as the forefather of photojournalism, the genre to which he ascribed meaning in Documerica.
From late 1971 to 1977 the freelance photographers hired for Documerica covered much of the country, many assigned to a particular region, usually the area where the photographer was from. The EPA had just begun and in an effort to literally put their mission to the test, they captured “the transition between an era of nearly unrestrained resource use and industrial pollution and another aspirational [sic] environmental legislation and conservation” (Walsh). Photographers were to capture environmental issues and human interaction with the land. By 1974 more than 80,000 photographs had been taken and submitted to the project (Taylor). Many of the photographs from the Documerica project depicted a country torn between pollution and people: many showed Americans doing everyday things and others showed polluted streams and backyards. “It’s a remarkable portrait of the early 1970s, when manufacturing still ruled the economy and environmental laws had just begun to regulate the air and water” (Madrigal).
Harvey’s image “Discharge and Garbage at Navy Pier 1973” shows a heavily littered waterfront, the debris floating between two giant ships. The caption leads us to believe that the refuse is discharge from the ships themselves. Harvey was photographing for Documerica in 1973 when he took the photo of the Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia, also the home of a black family that he lived with and documented in 1966 when he was 20 years old.
“I had a pretty healthy ego and was trying to save the neighborhood… I thought that if I told the people about it, all those white surfer boys who lived in Virginia Beach and their families who didn’t know this neighborhood existed, somehow they would know it was a social wrong. Of course they didn’t and the neighborhood is still a ghetto” (Boot).
Like the message behind the photographs of the FSA photographers, attention was paid to people who were wronged, the people who previously had no voice, and the photographs once again became a call to action, asking Americans to learn about their country and care about what was happening in it. “Out of crisis comes an opportunity for change, and while Documerica gathered images of loss and tragedy, it also collected images of Americans making a difference and creating positive change in their own lives and their surroundings” (Simmons).
Tress was another impactful photographer for Documerica, equally forceful in opinion and photograph. In 1968 his show Open Space in the Inner City showed that the “enjoyable quality of urban life has not kept up with the advance of our modern life” and in 1969, Volunteers In Service To America, itself a new program, hired Tress to photograph sharecroppers, folk artists and rural poverty in South Carolina (Lorenz).
In 1973 Tress continued his environmental and social photography with Documerica, raising awareness about the costs of pollution and its effects on society and the land. His photographs are stunning color portraits of polluted land: “Abandoned Car in Jamaica Bay 1973” shows a half submerged car, anchored in several feet of water, its interior completely gone revealing only the frame, and “This Land Along Jamaica Bay is Owned by the JFK Airport 1973” shows a trail of tires, half covered in sand, leading to another abandoned car, precariously poised at the top of a hill. From 1987 to 1990, Tress worked on a series titled Fish Tank Sonata, in which a talking fish leads a fisherman to realize that he must become a “protector of the aquatic environment as well as it exploiter” (Lorenz). Tress explored this same dichotomy in his Documerica photographs: so many of his images show the complete deterioration of the land, covered in litter, and people going about their daily lives.
Toxic pollutants. Species extinction. Overpopulation. In 1970, concern for the survival of the human race in the face of environmental catastrophe culminated in the first Earth Day, April 22. Twenty million Americans across the country demonstrated in support of environmental reform. “The 1970s we’re beginning to realize we’re a much more important decade than we thought. It’s not just disco and streaking,” said Bruce Bustard, curator with the National Archives (“Documerica”).
In 1972 the Corcoran Gallery of Art hosted the first major exhibit of Documerica photographs. As this was early on in the project, only a handful of photographers were on display and the exhibit lasted only a few weeks. Later, the exhibit became called “Our Only World,” echoing Hampshire’s words.
Rexford Tugwell, Stryker’s boss at the FSA, knew how important the photo-documentary project was. Likewise, Ruckelshaus knew that recording this history of America was important not just for the 1970s but also for future generations: “It is important that we document that change so future generations will understand our success and failures,” said Ruckelshaus (“Documerica”). The people who put these projects in motion knew that they were living in a time in the world that needed to be recorded and understood. The Great Depression left a quarter of the country unemployed; many wandered the country in search of food and a job.
With the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on March 4, 1933, the federal government’s response to the economic emergency was swift and massive. The explosion of legislation— which came to be collectively called the New Deal— was designed, at least in theory, to bring a halt to the human suffering and put the country on the road to recovery. The president promised relief, recovery and reform (Couch).
In a Congressional address, Roosevelt said: “In spite of our effort and in spite of our talk, we have not weeded out the overprivileged [sic] and we have not effectively lifted up the underprivileged [… ] In building toward this end we do not destroy ambition, nor do we seek to divide our wealth into equal shares on stated occasions. We continue to recognize the greater ability of some men to earn more than others. But we do assert that the ambition of the individual to obtain for him and his a proper security, a reasonable leisure, and a decent living throughout his life is an ambition to be preferred to appetite for great wealth and great power” (Adams).
Forty years later, once again a project was set up to document the lives of Americans and the struggles of the land. So big was the push for modernization in previous decades (urbanization building, crop dusting, great leaps in transportation) that a toll was taken on the land. Litter and noise polluted cities’ water and air, and again poverty was widespread. The EPA, as well as the rest of the country, knew that something had to be done before America was lost to trash. Documerica provided a record of the beginning of the American environmental crisis: “water, air, noise pollution; unchecked urbanization; poverty; environmental impact on public health; and youth culture of the day […] Documerica succeeded also in affirming America’s commitment to solving these problems by capturing … positive images of human life and American’s reactions, responses, and resourcefulness” (Simmons).
The FSA photography project came to an end much the same way that Documerica ended: it became harder to fund as fewer people believed that the projects were making a difference. Documerica had hoped to span the decade but the timing was poor, especially in light of picture magazines such as Life and Look in bankruptcy. The FSA likewise lasted less than 10 years; during the war there was no need for the FSA, as there became many unfilled jobs. The photography project was moved to the Office of War Information, but it only lasted a year before it too folded (“Farm Security Administration”). By 1978, Hampshire had sent the entire archive to the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona, but in 1981 the Documerica files were moved to the National Archives in accordance with the laws of federal government records. 15,000 of the images from the Documerica project are available in the Archival Research Catalog, displayed in time for Documerica’s fortieth anniversary in 2011.
Contrasting farmland and animals with planes and graffiti makes this project very different for its time but not singular in its events; many of the photographs look as if they were taken yesterday. Water is still polluted and graffiti still covers our city walls, and although a lot of improvements have been made across the country, there is still much to be done and it might now be harder to do: “I’m sure it would be much more difficult to make crop dusting photos today for several reasons- homeland security controls, aircraft pilots’ sensitivity to any press/photo coverage, and tighter controls over who can get near the chemicals. Good we got these when we did!” said former Documerica photographer Charles O’Rear (DailyDocumerica).
Another forty years later, the country is again in a state of depression and concern for the environment has only heightened. As people search for jobs in this economic depression, why not create another social documentary project in the vein of the FSA and Documerica? Both projects, thought cut short, were decade-defining; many of the pictures we still look at as landmark in America’s history. We need this project now, not just for posterity.
“Facing Change: Documenting America,” a current photography collective, is undertaking such a project. With photographers in pockets around the country, they are setting about to document society as it is today, again focusing on youth culture, poverty, and environmental impact of society. But the project is not that encompassing. In my mind, I see a national call to action, with a hundred photographers as Documerica had, spanning a full decade for the first time, and touring the exhibit around the country.
“Though a great deal has been done over the past 30 years to correct problems depicted in the photographs, there is a common consensus that there is so much left to accomplish in the race to save America’s natural resources… Americans must keep lenses sharply focused until environmental solutions are realized” (Simmons).
Adams, Don and Arlene Goldbard. “New Deal Cultural Programs: Experiments in Cultural Democracy”. http://www.wwcd.org. Webster’s World of Cultural Democracy, 1995. Web.
Brannan, Beverly W. and Gilles Mora. FSA: The American Vision. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2006. pg 24-43. pg 68-89. Print.
Couch, Jim. “The Works Progress Administration.” EH.net. Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. Web. 25 March 2012.
DailyDocumerica. http://dailydocumerica.tumblr.com/page/5. Web. 3 April 2012.
Dixon, Penelope. Photographs from the Farm Security Administration: An Annotated Bibliography 1930-1980. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1983. p 17. p 53. Print.
“Documerica: Photographs from the Dawn of the EPA.” Knight Center for Environmental Journalism. Web. 3 April 2012.
“Farm Security Administration.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. 15 March 2012. Web. 12 April 2012.
Light, Ken. Witness in Our Time: Working Lives of Documentary Photographers. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2010. pg 163-171. Print.
Madrigal, Alexis. “The ‘70s Photos that Made Us Want to Save Earth.” Wired.com. 11 March 2012. Web. 3 April 2012.
Peralta, Nancy Allen. A Comparison of Two Government-Sponsored Documentary Photography Projects: FSA 1935-1942 and Documerica 1970-1974. Long Beach: California State University, 1981. Print.
Simmons, C. Jerry. “DOCUMERICA: Snapshots of Crisis and Cure in the 1970s.” Prologue. Spring 2009, Volume 41. Issue 1 (2009): Print.
Taylor, Alan. “Documerica: Images of America in Crisis in the 1970s”. The Atlantic. November 2011. Print.
Walsh, Dylan. “A Photographic Blast from the Past.” green.blogs.nytimes.com. New York Times, 4 January 2012. Web. 3 April 2012.