Photos of 1970s American culture through an environmental lens


NewImageIn 1971, the US government's Environmental Protection Agency sponsored a photography project called DOCUMERICA to capture on film the impact of pollution, waste, and environmental dangers on American life. The result is a stunning portrait of 1970s American culture. A selection of those images -- more than 20,000 in total -- is now on view at the National Archives in Washington DC. They've also released an exhibition catalog with text by the EPA's first director, Bill Ruckelshaus, who was in charge during the DOCUMERICA project.

Above: "Children play in yard of Ruston home, while Tacoma smelter stack showers area with arsenic and lead residue” (Gene Daniels, Ruston, Washington, August 1972). Right: “Young woman watches as her car goes through testing at an auto emission inspection station in Downtown Cincinnati, Ohio" (Lyntha Scott Eiler, Cincinnati, OH, September 1975).

"16 Photographs That Capture the Best and Worst of 1970s America" (Smithsonian)

Searching for the Seventies: The DOCUMERICA Photography Project (National Archives)

"Searching for the Seventies: The DOCUMERICA Photography Project" (Amazon)



      1. I think the shirt was advertising a real or ersatz club, restaurant, burger shack, or the like. I remember winning a similar shirt at a roller-disco bingo raffle thing when I was 7 or 8.

        This was several years after the photo of the young thang above was taken, the coolness factor of the shirt having percolated down to an aesthetic appropriate to provincial roller rink raffles for kids.The ubiquitous grocer’s apostrophe gets on me nerves too, but typesetters and designers were more knowledgable about those things in the past. The ability to self-publish has multiplied the number of idiosyncracies and misspellings in print that would never have passed the review in earlier decades. It was too expensive to mess up. And creators grew up exposed to printed material that had been edited carefully before going to print.Damn, I loved that fucking shirt. The type and graphic outlines glowed in the dark which seemed the ne plus ultra of psychedelic/stony/Houses of the Holy rock art at that age. 

  1. Throughout the 1970s, I played the role of the geeky “different” kid in small town America during elementary school, junior high, and high school.

    Therefore, I am qualified to score the 1970s as a decade having zero redeeming qualities.  None.

    EDIT: it’s hyperbole. geeze.

    1. Yeah, I know; we had the energy crisis and a recession.  But we were still idealistic enough that we threw a president out of office for the kind of political dirty tricks that are pretty much standard today.  Most households could still do fine on one income.  Lots of folks had real pension plans and the others had a reasonable expectation that they’d get Social Security when they retired. 

      Unions were strong and you could get a good job that supported a family comfortably without a college education.  If you wanted one, though, tuition at state schools in many states was <$300 per quarter (CA tuition was free) and your books usually cost less than $100.

      When you saw someone off at the airport, you could go right to the departure gate.  There were no no-fly lists.  You didn't have to take off your shoes.

      There were almost no surveillance cameras, no red-light cameras, no speeding cameras.  Radar detectors would usually keep you from getting a speeding ticket.  Police SWAT teams were generally found only in big cities.  If an old person joined a street protest, the cops were generally fairly gentle with him or her.

      Climate change was a non-issue.  The sexual revolution was in full flower, AIDS was years away, and a round of penicillin would knock out a case of Gonorrhea.  Kids still played outdoors unsupervised.

      So – tell me again why the 1970s were so bad.  Go ahead and think.  I'll wait.

      1. Well, the Internet was pretty crappy in the 70s, that’s something.  Also, institutional racism was worse than it is today.  You also couldn’t get good Sushi in most towns. 

    2. Therefore, I am qualified to score the 1970s as a decade having zero redeeming qualities.  None.

      Oh, please.  Clothes that fit.  The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Harry Reems.  Need I go on?

    3. In the 70’s food was identifiable as food, and none of it scared the crap out of us.  Mothers knew how to cook and could make meals from scratch.  Families frequently ate that meal in the same room *together*.  Going out to eat was considered a treat.   While in public, diners displayed their best manners, even children were expected to behave and not disturb others.

      The best music ever was recorded in the 1970s.  You could even get cheesy, playable 45s off the back of your cereal box, by bands like The Jackson 5, The Partridge Family, The Monkees and The Archies, and slap them down on your turntable for a spin.  The recording companies were ripping off the artists, not the “fans”.

          1. Interesting to look online to see who did make the cut though… I remember Mungo Jerry’s ‘In the Summertime’.  My cousin had the 45 the summer it came out, and played it and played it.  

            It got left on the dashboard of her mother’s car, one hot July afternoon in OKC.

      1.  The best music ever was recorded in the 1970s.
        Just checkin, you *are* being ironic here, aren’t you?

        1. No, and I can’t engage in fisticuffs with you.  The room is really crowded.  There’s no place for me to put down my martini.

        2. Not a fan of funk and soul I take it? Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Parliament/Funkadelic… the list goes on for pages were it printed. 

          Fans of David Bowie, Zappa, punk, experimental electronic, Can and Krautrock, Nigerian and African rock and funk, et al, take it away.

          1. Actually, those were the kinds of groups you would find on the back of the cereal boxes, and  as a preteen of the seventies, we thought they were pretty neat.

            As for my musical tastes, I’m a funk, R&B, and blues fan from way back.  This summer we’ll attend three blues fests, two in Colorado and one in Wyoming.

  2. Hanging around the DMV is no life. You’re a young girl, you should be at home. You should be dressed up, going out with boys, going to school, you know, that kind of stuff.

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