Searching for the Seventies

U.S. National Archives

The DOCUMERICA Photography Project


Bad fashion, odd fads, and disco dance music sum up the 1970s for many Americans. We sadly contrast those years to the culturally swinging sixties and economically booming eighties. The seventies are often remembered as a decade of soaring inflation, political corruption, and loss of prestige around the world. But the 1970s were much more than leisure suits, streaking, and disco. Their importance goes beyond high gas prices, Watergate, and Vietnam. During the seventies, profound changes to the American people and to our politics, society, and economy took root.

Take a new look at the 1970s through the lens of a federal photography project called DOCUMERICA. Created by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1971, DOCUMERICA was born out of the decade’s environmental crisis. As you might expect, the photographers hired by EPA took thousands of photographs depicting pollution, waste, and blight, but surprisingly, they were given the freedom to capture the era’s trends, fashions, problems, and achievements. The result was an amazing archive and a fascinating portrait of America from 1972-1977.

Unless otherwise noted, all photographs in this exhibition are digital prints made from DOCUMERICA slides held by the National Archives. There may be small defects on a few of the prints. These reflect the condition of the slide when it came to the National Archives. Captions in quotation marks are from the captions as written by project’s photographers.

DOCUMERICA and Farm Security Administration Photography

DOCUMERICA was the brain child of Gifford “Giff” Hampshire (1924-2004), a photo editor and federal government employee who had worked for National Geographic. Hampshire greatly admired the 1930s Farm Security Administration (FSA) photography project that employed photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Arthur Rothstein and who who took photographs such as Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother.” Its goal was to document the United States during the Great Depression and promote Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

All his adult life, Hampshire had hoped to “do something . . . comparable to the FSA.” When he joined EPA’s Office of Public Affairs, he convinced EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus to support a documentary photography project that would document the 1970s environmental crisis.

DOCUMERICA was modeled on the FSA. Hampshire urged his photographers to read about it, and he hired FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein as an advisor. While he tried to avoid what he called FSA’s “propaganda” for government programs, DOCUMERICA photographers often took photographs that, consciously or not, appear inspired by documentary techniques pioneered by the FSA in the 1930s.

Why are these photographs in the National Archives?

The photographs in this exhibition document the actions of a Federal agency—the Environmental Protection Agency. By law, when EPA records—and those of other Federal agencies—are no longer needed, they are sent to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Only about 2-3% of all federal records are considered “permanently valuable” and become part of the Archives’ holdings.

When DOCUMERICA ended, its director, Gifford Hampshire, hoped the project’s color slides, photographic prints, and administrative records would be deposited in the Library of Congress, like the 1930s Farm Security Administration photographs he so admired. However, the Library refused to accept DOCUMERICA’s files. Worried that sending DOCUMERICA to the Archives would make it inaccessible, Hampshire arranged for its records to be deposited at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona. After his retirement, the EPA transferred the records to the Archives in 1981.

The largest series of DOCUMERICA photographs—almost 16,000 photographs—have been digitized and are available through NARA’s Archival Research Catalog at www.archives.gov/researchroom/arc. Smaller collections are available on Flicker.

DOCUMERICA: The Paper Trail

Seventy photographers completed 115 assignments during DOCUMERICA’s lifespan. The project’s records are now held in the still pictures stacks at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. In addition to almost 22,000 color slides, black and white negatives, color transparencies, and photographic prints, there are 25 boxes of textual material that allow historians to study the project, its photographs, and its photographers. Those records contain correspondence with photographers, assignment files, contracts, and Gifford Hampshire’s official files. They include examples of newspaper and magazine articles that used DOCUMERICA photographs and photographers’ caption sheets.


“Ball of confusion, That's what the world is today . . . ” 

“Ball of Confusion,” The Temptations, 1970

The 1970s were an uncertain time. The United States was powerful and wealthy, but Americans were uneasy. We were stuck economically and suffered from unemployment, inflation, and a series of energy crises. As the nation changed from a manufacturing to a service-based economy, plants closed, workers protested, and jobs went elsewhere.  A mass movement questioned the environmental costs of American affluence. Reforms meant to alleviate poverty and promote equality stalled.

Uncertainty extended to cultural issues. We argued about how to institutionalize and extend the gains of the civil rights movement. We questioned traditional attitudes about sexuality, marriage, and the family. We debated gender equality, abortion, gay rights, and the reach of government into our lives. Some Americans pushed for greater individual freedoms; others warned about declining moral standards.

DOCUMERICA photographers noticed and recorded many of these issues. Along with smog, polluted waters, and suburban sprawl, they photographed urban poverty, the youth culture, the woman’s movement, and efforts to improve the environment.

On Assignment: Jack Corn’s Appalachia

When Jack Corn took the coal mines, towns, and working people of Appalachia as his subjects for a 1974 DOCUMERICA assignment, he was returning to a region he had been photographing since 1961. Traveling through West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia, Corn photographed the patrons of small town bars and cafes, workers changing shifts, union strikers, and patients sick from black lung disease. He captured miners and their families, work traditions, the threat of accident, and the impact of economic change in coal country. “DOCUMERICA,” he has written, was one more chance to do what became a major life’s work.”


After DOCUMERICA, Jack Corn worked for 23 years as a photographer and photo-editor for the Tennessean. In 1976, he left the Tennessean to become Professional Photographer in Residence at Western Kentucky University.  In 1984, he became the Director of Photography for the Chicago Tribune. He returned to Western Kentucky in 1990. His photographs have appeared in The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. In 1995, he received the Joseph A. Sprague Memorial Award from the National Press Photographer’s Association.


“Everybody is a star Who can rain, chase the dust away Everybody wants to shine.”

“Everybody is a Star,” Sly and the Family Stone, 1970

During the 1970s, ordinary Americans expressed themselves more vibrantly than in the buttoned up 50s and 60s. The counter-cultural styles of the late 1960s spread out from college campuses and cities to Main Street and the suburbs. Men grew beards, wore their hair long, and put on colorful clothes.  Women wore mini-skirts, “granny” dresses, and pantsuits.

Fashion choices reflected other ways we began to embrace differences and strive for personal freedom in the 1970s. The African American civil rights movement inspired women, gays and lesbians, seniors, Hispanics, Native Americans, and the disabled to push for more inclusion in American life. Americans from a variety of cultural backgrounds discovered their history and their genealogical “roots.” The United States, it was said, was no longer a “melting pot,” but was, instead, a multi-cultural “salad bowl.”

DOCUMERICA’s color portraits highlighted the increasing appreciation for diversity in American life and the different ways we chose to “do our thing.”

On Assignment: John H. White’s Chicago

From June through October 1973 and during the spring of 1974, John H. White, a 28-year-old photographer with the Chicago Daily News, worked for DOCUMERICA photographing Chicago, especially the city`s African American community. As White reflected, he saw his assignment as “an opportunity to capture a slice of life, to capture history.” His photographs portray the difficult circumstances faced by many of Chicago`s African American residents in the early 1970s, but they also catch the “spirit, love, zeal, pride, and hopes of the community.” The assignment expressed his philosophy that his “camera is a passport. It takes you into the lives of people you might otherwise never meet.”


Today, John White is a staff photographer with the Chicago Sun-Times. His assignments have included Pope John Paul II’s 1979 visit to Mexico, the 1990 release of South African activist Nelson Mandela from prison, and Rev. Jessie Jackson’s 1994 and 1999 peace missions to the Middle East and Yugoslavia. His work has been exhibited and published widely, including the 1990 Songs of My People book and exhibit and two photo essays on Archbishop Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. For many decades he taught photojournalism at Columbia College. In addition to hundreds of other awards, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in 1982.


“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi,” 1970

Looking across the American landscape of the early 1970s, several features would catch your eye. Suburbs were affluent and growing, but cities were in decline—financially pressured, poverty stricken, and crime ridden. Places of great natural beauty continued to inspire, but they were often threatened by development and environmental damage.  Americans still idealized small towns but they, too were challenged by pollution, economic pressures, and population loss.

The automobile’s influence was everywhere. Cars caused congestion, polluted the environment, consumed oil, and encouraged sprawl. They demanded networks of roads to service the nation’s shopping centers, factories, schools, parks, and homes. And Americans were on the move: more of us were settling in the “sunbelt” and traveling further for work or leisure.

DOCUMERICA photographs depicted this fragmented landscape in its many varieties. They show scenic splendor and ugliness; urban revitalization and decay; suburban sprawl and nostalgia for small town America.

On Assignment: Lyntha Scott Eiler

In spring of 1972, Lyntha Scott Eiler and her husband, Terry Eiler, undertook a DOCUMERICA assignment photographing northern Arizona. Lyntha’s photographs touched on a variety of subjects—encroaching development, tourism, Native American children, strip mining, and the building of the Navajo Generating Station on the Navajo Reservation. In addition to “the awe of the Grand Canyon, the high desert plateaus and the cultures of Native Americans and pioneers,” she witnessed “the enormous draglines on the sacred Black Mesa, the Four Corner’s power plant’s plume . . . and the depleting of the pristine Navajo aquifer.” Her photographs aimed “to document my own era,” and “follow in the steps of [FSA photographers] Marion Post Walcott, Dorothea Lange, and Ester Bubley.”


Today, Lyntha Scott Eiler continues to work as a documentary photographer as well as a photo editor, magazine photographer, and researcher. She has taught at Ohio University, Marietta College, and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Her work has appeared in Ohio Magazine, Sunset, and National Geographic.  In addition to the National Archives, her photographs are held at the Library of Congress, Museum of Northern Arizona, and the Calvert Marine Museum. She has published books on the Blue Ridge Mountains, high school basketball, and the Havasupai Indians.

On Assignment: Tom Hubbard’s Fountain Square

Tom Hubbard’s DOCUMERICA assignment was to photograph a familiar place—Fountain Square, in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. Hubbard had covered many events there during his years as a photojournalist with the Cincinnati Enquirer, but for DOCUMERICA he staked out the square for several months in 1973. He recorded festivals, political demonstrations, and concerts, as well as the comings and goings of daily life. Hubbard photographed chess matches, kite flying, office workers at lunch, and street scenes. His shots especially captured the changes in dress and appearance emerging in 1970s America.


Hubbard’s Fountain Square assignment profoundly affected how he thought about photography. He moved away from photojournalism and the “forced timing” of “staged” news stories and toward documentary photography that emphasized the ordinary and the “non-event.”  Photographing Fountain Square gave him “a profound respect for photography’s ability to record the full range of the human scene.” 


In addition to his photographs for the Enquirer, Tom Hubbard’s work has appeared in Time, People, US Magazine, The New York Times, Business Week, Fortune, and Der Spiegel. He taught photojournalism at The Ohio State University from 1993 to 1998. Since 2000 he has been creating abstract digital art.

Credits: Story

National Archives Museum — National Archives, Washington, DC
With generous support from — Lawrence F. O'Brien Family
Curator — Bruce I. Bustard

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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