Forty years ago, the young Environmental Protection Agency hired freelance photographers to travel about the U.S. and shoot pictures of how the country was treating its natural resources. They did that and more. In a visual analogue of the Depression-era Federal Writers Project, the photographers compiled a trove of some 80,000 images documenting the people and places of that time, which was vastly different from today's world but remains a vivid memory for millions of Americans now in their 50s and older.
A few observations are in order. One, it's hard to imagine today's EPA initiating a similar project without it being skewered by melodramatic vocal chords from the talk radio/blogosphere fever swamps. Two, it presents striking evidence of how far the United States has come in taking better care of the air and water on which our lives, communities, economy, and well being depend. We can be proud of what we have accomplished as a nation, but remember what they say about eternal vigilance.
In cruising through the photos, it's remarkable to look back on how much we used to abuse the environment. A photo by Charles Steinhacker shows a paper mill outflow pipe pouring ugly liquid refuse into Maine's Androscoggin River.
Another by Arthur Tress shows the decaying remains of what appears to be a Volkswagen bug sitting in waist-deep water in New York's Jamaica Bay.
Over Los Angeles, Gene Daniels took an aerial shot showing smog banks smothering defiles within the San Gabriel Mountains that surround the metropolis. And the picture of a Cleveland roadscape that the New York Times selected for its blog post, taken by Frank Aleksandrowicz, assaults the eye with the pollution and ugliness we allowed to deface a great American city.
Yet the collection is not all smog and swill. The portraits of 1970s Americans connect us to our neighbors across space and time: The Virginia coal miner on his way to work the night shift, offering a carefree smile, as if he were thinking of a secret joke (photo by Jack Corn).
The grizzled town character named Woodrow Wilson who is content to sit in his battered pickup all day and stare at a river flowing through Leakey County, Texas (photo by Marc St. Gil).
A woman lost in her thoughts while riding a graffiti-smeared New York subway (photo by Erik Calonius).
A young bride in New Ulm, Minnesota, face full of hope tempered by life's unpredictability (photo by Art Hanson).
How much has changed and how little has changed.
Postscript: Thanks to Molly Hooven, an eagle-eyed EPA press officer who reads the Daily Green, we've learned about a contemporary EPA photo project, State of the Environment. On Earth Day last year, EPA asked photographers to send in their images of today's world. Photographers have until Earth Day this year to document the 21st century environment, including places photographed during the 1970s Documerica project. More information at blog.epa.gov/epplocations.
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