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,