Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
This dissertation interprets the images and archival records of Project Documerica, the Environmental Protection Agency's photography project that ran from 1971 to 1977. Directed by Gifford Hampshire, a former National Geographic editor, Documerica was modeled on 1930s Farm Security Administration photography, which had helped establish the documentary genre through iconic images of Depression-era America. Whereas the FSA had shown the human costs of the Dust Bowl, Documerica aimed to reveal the natural and social costs of the environmental crisis. Vocal public environmental concern made Documerica appealing to EPA officials, and this new agency's still-forming bureaucracy enabled Hampshire's ambitious plan to remount an FSA-style initiative.
Documerica's mission included: creating a “visual baseline” of the U.S. environment from which future progress could be measured; documenting the EPA's successes in ameliorating the crisis; chronicling the environmental movement, including non-activist Americans in relationship to their environment, broadly defined; and compiling a visual encyclopedia of American life in the 1970s, as the FSA had done in the 1930s. The urge to revive a national, FSA-style undertaking expressed widespread nostalgia for a mythic American past in the 1970s, an era fraught with social upheaval over Civil Rights and Vietnam.
In its time, Documerica failed to achieve recognition comparable to the FSA's, and folded prematurely. Yet its 22,000 images, housed at the National Archives, nonetheless provide a complex portrait of the U.S. during a moment of significant cultural transition. This dissertation interprets Documerica's photographs, its bureaucratic struggles, and its nostalgia in the context of the massive social, political, and economic shifts of the 1970s. In particular, it examines Documerica's focus on the post-industrial landscape, exploring why the project emphasized the changing aesthetics of the built environment as much as threats to the natural environment. The dissertation centers on visual conceptions of American small towns, cities and suburbs in six specific series by photographers Ken Heyman, Danny Lyon, Yoichi Okamoto, Kenneth Paik, Suzanne Szasz, and Arthur Tress. Encapsulating Documerica's central preoccupation with preservation, these images of architectural and social environments evince the era's deep-seated anxieties about fragmentation, degradation, suburban sprawl, urban decline, and proliferating car culture.
Copyright 2009 Barbara Lynn Shubinski