Documerica: How Environmental Photography Captured an Era

Student: Ingrid Buckley
Major: History
Minor: Environmental Studies
Advisor: Margaret Ng

Documerica was a government sponsored photographic project created under the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency. It spanned the years of 1972-1977, helping to shape and define an era of heightened environmental consciousness in the United States. Reminiscent of the Farm Security Administration’s photographic project in the 1930s, Documerica’s mission was to record the impact of modern human life on the environment, echoing the new agency’s goal of “social change through powerful photography.”[1] This paper draws on existing scholarship within the fields of environmental and photographic history, and also incorporates an original analysis of the photographs, the experience of photographers, and considers the complex dialogue that existed between the Documerica office, the EPA, and the larger governmental structures in place.

[1] Steven Hoelscher, “American Environmental Photography,” in The American Environment Revisited: Environmental Historical Geographies of the United States. ed. G.L. Buckley and Y. Youngs (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), 295.

Ingrid will be online to field comments on May 8:
Noon-2pm EDT (PST 9am-11am, Africa/Europe: early evening)

33 thoughts on “Documerica: How Environmental Photography Captured an Era”

  1. Ingrid, your thoughtful presentation has piqued my interest in learning more about Docudrama. Thank you!

  2. Great job in synthesizing what you have learned with your work at the Digital Collections. Congratulations, Ingrid! Best of luck!

  3. Primary sources are very powerful ways of capturing and preserving history, we are fortunate to have the National Archives working to digitize images that might otherwise be lost. I’d not heard of the Documerica project before today and appreciate learning something new. The images you displayed are really great, it would be interesting to see how some of those same areas look today compared to when the photographs were originally taken. Congratulations, Ingrid on your IS, it is a big accomplishment!

  4. Great job of using archival research and interviews–I wish even more of our students did so–*and* of recognizing the importance and foibles of what is preserved. Thanks for sharing, Ingrid.

  5. Ingrid, what an informative and thought-provoking study, and great job on the video synopsis. The Documerica Project spanned my high school and COW years but I was certainly unaware of it at the time, so thank you for opening my eyes to it! I look forward to checking out the National Archives holdings.

  6. Ingrid, this is fascinating! I’d never seen these photos before. How did your methodological grounding in environmental history shape your project?

    1. I’ve always been interested in the interaction between people and their environment, especially in a more contemporary context, and so it was fascinating to delve further into this relationship with Project Documerica. In my thesis, I address the idea of the declentionist narrative, or the notion that man will inevitably destroy nature. It is a narrative that environmental historians can fall into when trying to describe this complex relationship between people and their environment. Throughout the whole process of research, photo analysis and so forth, I was very conscious of how these images created certain ideals about the environment and how they would be used to perpetuate these ideals. Likewise, I tried to avoid falling into that somewhat simplistic narrative as much as I could.

  7. What a compelling project! I’m impressed by the way you interpret Documerica – and explain the significance of this kind of documentation. And the photographs are fascinating. Excellent work!

  8. Ingrid, you are such a hard worker and i’m so amazed by the detail of your work! Thanks for putting together this presentation (and for being my friend). Congrats again 🙂

    1. Thank you Laney! It was a lot of fun to work on (and thanks for being my friend:))

  9. This is a fascinating project, Ingrid! Congratulations! To what extent did Documerica capture or engage with the national parks? What narratives were constructed around these spaces?

    1. I know that there were some photographers who were taking images in the national parks, but the grand majority were focusing on land not yet protected or perhaps deemed unworthy of protection. I believe there is also a split in terms of parks images. Some would have been used to highlight the “sublime” or majesty of these natural places, and others would have pointed out the human impact upon it (i.e. how the popularization of the parks has created an increase in tourism and created new human induced issues).

  10. Ingrid, this project is so awesome! I love your use of archival research and really appreciate the way you investigate photography so thoughtfully. So super duper proud to know you.

  11. Such a cool project! (As I would expect from you. 🙂 ) Do you know if there are any similar projects going on today to document the environmental condition of the 21st century?

    Also – what are you doing next, Ingrid?

    1. Thank you Maya! 🙂 I am not aware of other enviro photographic projects being conducted on such a large scale at the moment, especially stemming from the current EPA, but I wouldn’t be surprised if smaller more regional projects were in the works.

      Post grad… I am planning to work at the Southeast Ohio History Center again this summer and help to put up a couple exhibits on environmentalism in the region. One of which might be focused on Documerica and the photographers who took photographs in SE Ohio! For the fall, I’m planning to apply for archival/ collections jobs through the Student Conservation Association. So hopefully I’ll end up working at a National Park come September!

  12. Congratulations, Ingrid! This research is so fascinating. I had never heard of Documerica and love that you’re drawing attention to the importance of primary documents other than written material. So smart to pair your love of photography with your research. Your passion for your project is evident in your presentation!

  13. Thank you Marissa! It was so fun to be able to find a topic that combined my interested of enviro history, environmentalism and photography (art history). I came across it while researching the broader topic of environmental photography, specifically reading Steven Hoelscher’s chapter “American Environmental Photography,” and I realized how cool it would be to look further into. And to later find out that two of the original photographers on the project live in my hometown seemed too good to be true.

  14. Excellente presentation, Ingrid! Tu donnes envie de se plonger dans ces photos. Bravo et bonne continuation après Wooster!

  15. Go Ingrid go Ingrid go Ingrid!! I have loved seeing how deeply passionate you are about this project and how you dove into it. You are so thoughtful in your work, your joy and excitement in learning are so clear, and that translates into a really beautifully put-together project! How amazing, too, that you were able to so seamlessly combine your love for history and photography into one project! You are a shining light!!

  16. Wow Ingrid! This is fascinating. Have you read The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh?
    Congratulations on your IS!

    1. I believe I just read something by Ghosh for my South Asian history class, but I have not read The Great Derangement. I’ll look into it- thanks Lillie!

  17. Congratulations Ingrid🧑🏼‍🎓🎓📚✨💫 you did a fantastic project, something interesting to keep following👍

  18. Excellent project, and a terrific presentation. I grew up in Pittsburgh and though it was before the Documerica period, photos from the 30s and 40s were instrumental in passage of local clean air initiatives at mid-century.

    Did examining so many photographs cause you to “see” urban or rural spaces any differently than before you started your project?

    1. Thank you, and wow that is really interesting to hear!

      For me, looking at these historic images, and knowing the context that surrounded them (with a buffer of 40 or so years) created an interesting reaction because they truly feel like a snapshot in time. In most cases, the subject matter in the images does not exist anymore, which in my mind, makes them seem almost ephemeral. The main purpose of Documerica was to document change and also to incite change though publicizing the images, and so there is this overwhelming sense that these urban and rural environments will evolve and adapt over the coming years. I guess I pick up on this a bit more now when looking at similar types of images, that they are ever changing in and of themselves, and have the ability to be changed by others, if that makes sense.

  19. Congratulations, Ingrid! This is a really fascinating project and you pulled it off beautifully. It’s nice to see you incorporate your interest in visual images/material culture into your I.S. All my best wishes for all that comes next!

  20. Ingrid, Documerica is really interesting and so is your project! Congratulations!!
    I wonder whether you think there are some lessons we can take from Documerica on how to use images to mobilize the public towards appropriately caring about the environment?

    All the best!

  21. Hi Ingrid! This was such a beautiful presentation. I loved learning about your work and the fact that this topic ties photography and environmental awareness together is so interesting!

  22. What a fascinating and important topic, which allowed you work with so many different kinds of materials and primary sources. Toutes mes félicitations!

  23. Ingrid! An insightful and engaging story of Documerica. As someone who lacks a strong background in history I don’t always think of this, but this video reminds me strongly that we indeed need to take time to carefully unpick what happened before us, preserve it for the future, and prepare not to repeat past mistakes. And I can really see the importance of Documerica now!

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