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.
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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.