John White: Portrait of Black Chicago

The following essay is adapted from a longer article by Bruce I. Bustard, the curator of Portrait of Black Chicago.

The DOCUMERICA Project,
1971-77

If I were to begin describing to you a collection of photographs in the National Archives, taken in the early and mid-1970s by photographers on contract with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), you would probably not get too enthusiastic. And if I would then say that these photographs document "subjects of environmental concern," you would probably assume, as I did, that this collection consists of images of smog, clear-cut timber, traffic congestion, sewerage plants, and oil spills.

You would be in for a pleasant surprise.

You would be surprised because, while the images I am discussing--the records of the EPA`s DOCUMERICA Project--do, in fact, contain scenes of environmental blight, they also include many images that go well beyond any narrow definition of "environmental concern." In the holdings of DOCUMERICA are images of scenery and suburban sprawl; of life on Indian reservations, small midwestern towns, and inner cities. In fact, I would argue DOCUMERICA represents a rich documentary portrait of American life during the 1970s -- a cache of photographs that rivals in scope and power, if not size, the earlier and more famous government photography projects of the 1930s and 1940s.

The idea behind DOCUMERICA was simple. Beginning in 1972, the EPA contracted out assignments to photographers who were paid $150 a day plus film and expenses to shoot a variety of images, usually on color slide film. The film was shipped to regional labs for processing, and after edits by the photographer, the finished slides were sent to Washington, DC, where EPA staffers selected the best images to add to the

DOCUMERICA collection. Photographers received full credit for any accepted images, and any rejected images were their property. All approved DOCUMERICA images became property of the U.S. government. DOCUMERICA drew upon a long history of government photography projects, but it was the brainchild of Gifford Hampshire. In 1970 Hampshire, whose career had included jobs as a public relations executive with a camera company, a photo editor with National Geographic, and a speech writer for USIA and FDA, was working for EPA`s Office of Public Affairs. It was he who raised the idea of a documentary photography project with aides to EPA director William Ruckelshaus. Several of the staff members had heard of the New Deal photography projects and were intrigued with the idea of a new project dealing with environmental issues. Soon afterward, the EPA`s Office of Public Affairs asked Hampshire to organize DOCUMERICA.

By mid-1971 the DOCUMERICA project was under way, and in November EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus announced its creation to public and press. According to Ruckelshaus, its goals were both idealistic and pragmatic. DOCUMERICA`s existence was tied to the agency`s mission to "protect and enhance our environment" because future Americans should "understand our successes and failures." DOCUMERICA`S photographic record would establish "a visual baseline" of images of 1970s America from which progress on environmental issues could be measured. As one very practical example, EPA literature cited compliance with the Clean Air Act of 1970. DOCUMERICA would "photographically record the current air pollution problems" as they existed in 1972, and later photos would chart improvements and community compliance.

In addition to assisting EPA in these concrete ways, DOCUMERICA was justified on more philosophical grounds. The photographs would depict the "impact of the environmental problem," tally the social and economic costs of environmental change, document "the environmental movement itself," and depict Americans "doing their environmental thing." It would not ignore the positive aspects of the American environment. "We`re not going to confine ourselves to showing deplorable conditions," wrote Arthur Rothstein, "we also want to show the beauty of what is worth saving." In fact, it seemed almost everything was a potential DOCUMERICA subject. Gifford Hampshire was fond of saying that the project would take Barry Commoner`s first law of ecology as its credo: "Everything is connected to everything else."

Photographic assignments varied greatly. They could be as straightforward as Gene Daniels` assignment to document "fly fishermen for conservation" in Sequoia National Park or as general as John Alexsandrowicz`s to photograph "the environmental problems" of metropolitan Cleveland, OH. However, in all cases photographers were free to interpret their charge broadly and most did. There were no "scripts" for photographers to follow because Hampshire believed that such guidelines would limit creativity. Alexsandrowicz`s photographs, for example, include not only images of smokestacks and the polluted Cuyahoga River, but of neat suburban neighborhoods, Amish communities, and local parks. Another photographer, John White, who was assigned to photograph Chicago`s South Side, described his work broadly as "portraits that reflect pride, love, beauty, hope, struggle, joy, hate, frustration, discontent, worship, and faith."

Budgetary shortfalls and internal politics killed DOCUMERICA in 1977, but by the time it ran out of money, the project had produced impressive results. DOCUMERICA photographers took some 80,000 photographs, and the DOCUMERICA collection in the National Archives and Records Administration contains almost 22,000 images. The project covers the entire United States and includes the work of several well-known photographers such as Danny Lyon, Mark St. Gil, Charles O`Rear, Arthur Tress, Yoichi Okamoto, and David Hiser. DOCUMERICA also drew on the talents of an earlier generation of documentary photographers, employing John Vachon and Arthur Rothstein (two well-known, former FSA photographers) as consultants during the early days of the project.

While it is unfortunate that DOCUMERICA was so short-lived and that it failed to become a permanent institution as Hampshire had envisioned, it did live up to its lofty goals. Many of the photographs in the collection will stand the test of time and are a tribute not only to the photographer`s creativity but to Hampshire`s faith in the individual talents of those he hired.

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