The DOCUMERICA Photo Project: Searching for the Seventies

As the 1960’s came to a close, the hasty development of industry began to take its toll on the environment. The newly developed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took notice of this and announced a new documentary project to illustrate the environmental challenges and impacts of industry. This project, titled DOCUMERICA, was purposed to photographically depict how the environment was being affected by the growth of industry across the United States in hopes to inspire the public to become better stewards of the earth that we inhabit.

The project was announced in November of 1971 and the photographers began shooting in January of 1972. Approximately 70 well-known photographers were hired by the EPA to complete this project. There were 115 assignments that were split up between the different photographers that took place in all 50 states. EPA’s purchase orders that were given to the individuals always listed a geographic region for them to shoot and occasionally gave them a subject matter to document. Photojournalists covered all types of pollution ranging from chemical plant emissions to airport noise pollution. Over the course of seven years, thousands of pictures were taken. Twenty-two thousand of the best images are now stored at the National Archives and Records Administration and 15,000 of those are available online for public access.

Michael Philip Manheim was a photographer that was commissioned in his hometown of Boston, Massachusetts. His job was to document the noise pollution that was coming from Logan’s Airport and affecting the Neptune Road neighborhood that was adjacent to it. The roar of the jet engines caused people significant physical and mental stress to the point where they were forced to move out of the neighborhood. Michael captured photos of 727 jets flying right above the houses of the neighborhoods. Unfortunately, these pictures did not cause enough stir to effect the noise pollution. Today, there is no longer a neighborhood there, instead replaced with warehouses, shipping companies and construction vehicle lots that all service the airport.

The automotive industry quickly responded by taking strides to lower the emissions from the cars they were producing. In 1970, the first Clean Air Act was passed by congress requiring a 90 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from cars by 1975. In 1970, cars emitted approximately 16.5 tons of carbon dioxide per capita. By 2009, the average car emitted only 13 tons of CO2 per capita. This decrease in CO2 emissions may seem small, but the amount of cars on the road increased from 111,242,295 in 1970 to 254,212,610 in 2009 and the total miles driven increased from 1.1 trillion in 1970 to 3 trillion in 2009.

To further the effort, the EPA shut down the Birmingham Pipe Plant in Birmingham, Alabama due to high levels of emissions in 1977. The town was previously plagued with extreme levels of smog which greatly affected human health and quality of life in Birmingham. Now the air in Birmingham is much cleaner and the town is ever progressing towards lowering the emissions produced in their town. As a whole, this project completed its mission of raising awareness to the rising levels of pollution in our society and calling the public into action to prevent the pollution to continue rising. For the past 40 years, we have been constantly adjusting our efforts to become better inhabitants and stewards of the planet we all share.


Contributed by Drew Moore, Monroe office intern