15 October 2013

Figures in a Landscape, II

The U.S. government, as of this writing, remains in shutdown mode. But while the National Archive site is offline, their Flickr pools are still open to the public.

As far as governmental photography projects go, everyone knows about knows about the early New Deal work done during the New Deal era -- with Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and many others venturing out for the across the country to document life during the Dustbowl Years. And then there were other similar but lesser-known projects that extended into the early years of the nation's entry in WWII.

Somewhere halfway between that former Depression of 80 years ago and the one we're in now, during a similarly monetarily distressed period of the early 1970s, the government sent dozens of photographers out to cover the land and document aspects of lives and landscapes across the nation's expanse for the "Documerica" series. This time, it was a project launched by the Environmental Protection Agency, which commissioned some 77 photographers to canvas the country between the years of 1971-1976.

That the EPA had a hand in it might surprise a few people. But there was, to an extent, something of a semi-populist, grassroots environmental movement in the early 'seventies; enough so that the government (once again, to an extent) responded to public concern. Maybe it was the Cuyahoga River Fire of 1969 that sounded the alarm, because a couple years that came the soon-to-be-iconic Ad Council "Keep America Beautiful" TV spots in which Iron Eyes Cody shed a tear at the flagrant befouling of the American landscape. In the years that followed there were efforts at conservation brought about by the energy crisis, the Love Canal controversy, plus scientific studies about CFCs and ozone depletion beginning to broadly circulate in public. But by the time of the Three Mile Island incident in 1979, seemed like everyone had given a collective, resigned shrug. Shortly thereafter, the likes of James G. Watt set the tone for public regard toward such matters over the next several decades.

At any rate, the selection posted via Flickr is, I gather, only a portion of the entire run of the project. But still, there's thousands of images to look through. Plenty of landscapes and public works and billowing smokestacks and the odd polluted waterway, as well as young people making out on Boston's Constitution Beach directly underneath the air traffic from neighboring Logan Airport. But mostly it presents a panoramic glimpse into life as lived in various parts of the country roughly four decades ago, capturing many aspects thereof.

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