Forgotten Images of 1970s America

The Environmental Protection Agency is 50 years old today. An early, ambitious EPA project captured thousands of images of ecological crisis and human resilience in the U.S. in the 1970s.

Worker walks past a smog covered row of buildings near the North Birmingham Pipe Plant

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Fifty years ago today, the Environmental Protection Agency was officially established in Washington, D.C. when the Senate confirmed its first administrator, William Ruckelshaus.

The American appetite for government action on environmental matters had grown throughout the ’60s after the explosive publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as well as pollution-driven disasters like the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969.

As a new federal agency, the EPA would strive to “clean up America,” a task that would prove to be as complex in reality as it was noble in theory. What Ruckelshaus understood about environmental quality in the U.S. was that it was tied to every other facet of American life, from industry and poverty to racial inequality and consumerism. Enforcing cleaner standards would antagonize powerful industrial forces in energy and manufacturing that employed entire regions of the country.

Ruckelshaus and his agency would need to cultivate an unshakeable, locally-driven culture of patriotic environmentalism in the U.S. to prepare for the “new American revolution.”

One of the first projects of the new EPA was Documerica, a sprawling photography program that aimed to document the peoples, landscapes, and environmental crises of all 50 states. To guide this venture, Ruckelshaus selected Gifford Hampshire, a World War II veteran and former National Geographic editor. Their vision for Documerica was inspired by Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration’s documentary project in the 1930s that had allowed photographer Dorothea Lange to capture the iconic “Migrant Mother” photograph. Hampshire was charged with the task of stirring nationwide support for environmental action just as the FSA had done during the Great Depression.

In 1973, Ruckelshaus left the EPA, stranding Hampshire and his controversial project with some skeptical bureaucrats. Hampshire had hired around 70 photographers from newspapers and magazines in every state to shoot national parks, landfills, river pollution, pesticide laboratories, coal miners, Indian reservations, and bucolic small-town life. They shot around 22,000 color photographs, all of which are kept in the National Archives. In 1977, the Documerica project abruptly ended, and — save for a few exhibits and coffee table books — the vast archive it produced has gone largely forgotten and unused.

The images from Documerica represent not only an ailing, post-industrial environment, but also the joy and resilience of American people. Alongside photos of smog and industrial refuse are pictures of conservation activists gathering in national forests, children playing with farm animals, and Black coal miners posing with their families.

A half-century after the EPA’s start, the task of environmental protection has doubtlessly expanded along with the discoveries of the dire threat of global warming and the lasting effects of plastic pollution. Looking back on one of the agency’s early, ambitious projects of scientific and cultural documentation could inspire renewed interest in once again harnessing the power of American will to secure our collective ecological fortune.

For further information, read “The Republican Who Brought Environmentalism to the White House”


Woman and child on a horse in the Sutcliffe Indian Lake Reservation
Spring roundup of Paiute-owned cattle begins at Sutcliffe Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation. Corralling and branding is done in five stages around Pyramid Lake. Young girl rides with her father. Photo by Jonas Dovydenas/NARA


A large pile of used oil drums lies in the open air near an Exxon refinery
A mountain of damaged oil drums near the Exxon refinery. Photo by John Messina/NARA


A woman holds a jar of polluted, undrinkable water
Mary Workman holds a jar of undrinkable water that comes from her well and has filed a damage suit against the Hanna Coal Company. She has to transport water from a well many miles away. Although the coal company owns all the land around her, and many roads are closed, she refuses to sell. Photo by Erik Calonius/NARA


A migrant worker and his grandson near a shack in Texas
Migrant worker with his grandchildren in front of two-room shack that houses three families (20 people). This man and his family follow the crops north from Texas each year. His present job is weeding sugar beets at $2.00 an hour. Photo by Bill Gillette/NARA


Couple fishing in a polluted river while a oil freighter sails by in the background.
Freighter moves slowly up the Houston ship channel as girls fish from the shore. Oil derricks are visible in the background. Photo by Blair Pittman/NARA


Cars drive by a billboard advertising space for industrial plants near Moab, Utah
Sign outside Moab, an old Mormon pioneer town situated on the Colorado River, invites industrial expansion. The region is rich in oil, uranium, and potash. The last two form the basis of the two leading industries of the area. Photo by David Hiser/NARA


Coal miner suffers from a case of black lung.
Ex-coal miner is now a black lung victim. Photo by LeRoy Woodson/NARA


Man lifts up a pile of sludgy strip mining from a lake near his sporting club
Caretaker of the Belmont Reel and Gun Club off Route 100 near Morristown, Ohio, shows the silt from strip mining that is filling the lake. Photo by Erik Calonius/NARA


Young teenager holds up a greased pig he caught during a coal company's picnic
Rex Layne, 14, triumphantly holds up one of the greased pigs he caught at the Tennessee Consolidated Coal Company first annual picnic held at a Tennessee Valley Authority Lake near Jasper and Chattanooga, Tennessee. During the day, the miners and their families gathered to talk, participate in sports, eat barbecue, and hear the company president explain health and retirement benefits. Photo by Jack Corn/NARA


Women from the Iowa Indian tribe show off modern versions of their traditional dress.
Four women of the Iowa Indian tribe are shown wearing a modern version of their costumes on the main street of White Cloud, Kansas, near Troy. Mary Louise White Cloud Rhodd, left, and Broken Fireplace, third from the left, are granddaughters of Chief White Cloud, whose name the town took for its own. Photo by Patricia D. Duncan/NARA


Family pulls their raft from the Rio Grande River
End of float trip on the Rio Grande River through the Santa Elena Canyon. Mexico is on the left; U.S.A. on the right. Photo by Blair Pittman/NARA


Couple show off a truck bought from payments over black lung
Mr. and Mrs. Berry Howard of Cumberland, Kentucky and the new truck he just bought with some of his black lung payments. He retired from the mines several years ago, and the disease results from coal dust particles filling air sacs in the lungs, causing a progressive shortness of breath. Photo by Jack Corn/NARA


Family prepares to attend a band concert at a local grade school
Martha Crider, with her family and husband, get ready to go to a band concert at the local grade school in Fierco, West Virginia, near Beckly. The town is divided between black and white populations by the railroad tracks. Photographer unknown/NARA


Cars travel down a highway near a smog covered city.
Smoke-belching chimneys and smog-obscured city. Photo by LeRoy Woodson/NARA


Migrant worker with her daughter
Young migrant worker with child rests after working in sugar beet fields. Photo by Bill Gillette/NARA


Worker walks past a smog covered row of buildings near the North Birmingham Pipe Plant
Industrial smoke blacks out homes adjacent to North Birmingham Pipe Plant. This is the most heavily polluted area of the city. Photo by LeRoy Woodson/NARA


Farmer with a large can of pesticide
Farmer and pesticide spray-can. Photo by John Messina/NARA


Man paddles in a canoe on Twitchell Lake
Canoer on a misty evening paddles on Twitchell Lake, New York, in the Adirondack Forest Preserve. Photo by Anne LaBastille/NARA


Duck covered in polluted material
Dead duck mired in a five-acre pond filled with acid water, oil, and acid clay sludge. Unway animals that came to the pond and were covered with the liquid were unable to survive. It was cleaned up under EPA supervision. The liquid was removed, neutralized, and trucked to a disposal site. Photo by Bruce McAllister/NARA


Oil waste scattered on a large hill
Oil waste on barren hillside. Photo by Gene Daniels/NARA


Smog covers the Manhattan skyline
East River and Manhattan skyline in heavy smog. Photo by Chester Higgins/NARA


Areal view of hoover dam
Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. Lake Mead waters on left. Photo by Charles O’Rear/NARA


Abandoned farm house
Abandoned house and rusted iron hand pump on land that used to be covered by tallgrass prairie in Johnson County, Kansas near Kansas City. The wave of pioneer farmers cleared the native grasses and planted crops in the fertile soil. As a result, only scattered patches of native tallgrass prairie survive. There is a bill in congress which would make an area of Kansas a tallgrass prairie national park. Photo by Patricia D. Duncan/NARA


horse riders during a parade
Horse riders, one with a can of beer, parade down the main street of Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, near Emporia, during festivities for the Flint Hills Rodeo, a major cultural event of the area. Horses and large cattle trucks are the featured modes of transportation. It is a 19th-century “cowboy” town in the heart of the Flint Hills region, and near an area designated as a possible site for a tall grass prairie national park. Photo by Patricia D. Duncan/NARA


Old, trashed cars submerged in water near railroad tracks
Train on the Southern Pacific Railroad passes a five-acre pond which was used as a dump site by are commercial firms. The acid water, oil, acid clay sludge, dead animals, junked cars and other dump debris was cleaned up by several governmental groups under the supervision of EPA. Some 1,200,000 gallons of liquid was pumped from the site, neutralized, and taken to a disposal site. Photo by Bruce McAllister/NARA


The Statue of Liberty can be seen across from a landfill
A setting for the Statue of Liberty not often seen by tourists. This dumping and landfill area is the site of the proposed Liberty State Park. Photo by Gary Miller/NARA

Featured image: Photo by LeRoy Woodson/NARA

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  1. If you look closely at the photo of the man and his daughter, you will see a stirrup hanging dowm empty. That man is relaxing in the saddle with his leg thrown over to the side while the horse is standing still as he gazes at the scenery.

  2. The EPA was born of necessity and did it’s job. But like ALL Government programs and agencies, they did not disband when their goal was accomplished. They invented new problems and created new rules that needed to be enforced so as to justify their continued existence. They have greatly overreached their intended charter. These pictures are history and we are not going back to them… with or without the EPA in it’s current form.

  3. looking at the father daughter picture.. I would say it was a father.. as men when resting would throw their legs around the horn for a different position….. Indian women didn’t ride side saddle.. only East Coast and rich english saddle women did..

  4. I grew up in a big city in the 1970’s . I remember all the smog from the factories. Steel and rubber mostly. The lake got so dirty you were told not to swim in it. A lot of factories were closed in the 90’s and the pollution has gotten better.

  5. I watch the old Perry Mason’s from the 50’s and 60’s on Netflix.

    I am amazed by how much smog you can see in certain shots. LA has come a long way in reducing smog, thanks to EPA regulations.

    People who didn’t grow up with pollution
    have no idea how bad it used to be! So it’s
    Important to look back in time and understand why things had to change. Thanks for a hard look at the unregulated
    “good old days”.

  6. Being a high school student in the mid-late 1970s at Sequatchie County High School in Dunlap, TN, I remember very well the days of the miner picnics held in Sequatchie Valley near Jasper. About 2/3 of the students were absent on that day every year when it was held in the Spring. Mining was a major employer of the region. Both Strip and Underground Mining Techniques were used. Many of us who rode off road motorcycles routinely rode the strip mines after they were abandoned. Talk about some serious air you could get on those jumps! Amazing. Plus lakes were created as a result. Nowadays when you visit those areas Pine and various hardwood trees have reclaimed those regions a and it’s kind of nice and pretty. All this with no help or guidance whatsoever from EPA, which I deem as a useless bureaucratic government agency nestled in the Washington, DC swamp.

  7. “Spring roundup of Paiute-owned cattle begins at Sutcliffe Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation. Corralling and branding is done in five stages around Pyramid Lake. Young girl rides with her father. Photo by Jonas Dovydenas/NARA”

    Odds are against that being a man on the horse with the young girl. Only women rode or sat side saddle. Native American men didn’t. Look again. Think you may find that’s a woman and her daughter.

  8. Excellent feature. There’s so much to say here I did say earlier, then the computer went ‘poof’ and it all disappeared. I strongly feel the reason things (environmentally) are as good as they are now is because of the EPA and what they started back in 1970.

    We have a LONG way to go, and indeed have newer and different problems added to the mix than we did then. It’s something that will never be ‘solved’ as life is an on-going process. Both political parties, despite their differences, will have to come together for the good of the environment, our people, our economy and more. I know that sounds ridiculous even though it shouldn’t, but we’re in an extremely bad, precarious place now.

    Let’s hope we’ll see the start of a new era next month that will begin with necessary wins in Georgia to get rid of some really evil, satanic trash from Kentucky. Meanwhile the links and info here are wonderful. I spent a lot of time reading it. The photos very interesting too. I can remember when smog was really bad in L.A., and has improved greatly over the decades. It’s one of the EPA’s success stories. Ironically now, fires have replaced auto and smoke stacks as the biggest source of air pollution.


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