Revived photo collection shows America during agency's infancy

Michael Reynolds built his first beer-can house in the New Mexico desert, arranging 70,000 steel cans into eight-can building blocks to create an otherworldly home with curving adobe walls and a reprocessed paper ceiling.

His efforts were captured by photographer David Hiser almost 40 years ago. In one, cans of Schlitz and Pepsi peek out from behind mortar in an unfinished wall; in another, Reynolds lies on a patchwork quilt, contemplating his pyramid-shaped room that the caption notes was "modeled exactly after the Great Pyramid in Egypt."

Today those photos have re-emerged with a renewed interest in "Documerica," a project U.S. EPA commissioned 40 years ago to document the state of the environment. Undertaken when EPA was a fledgling agency, the project captured the country before most federal regulations, before widespread recycling, before the popularity of energy-efficient homes and the controversy over "green energy."

"It blew me away," said Jeanethe Falvey, who heads EPA's latest reincarnation of the project, "State of the Environment." "It was everything that I had ever studied in undergrad and grad school. I couldn't wait to shed more light on the project."

More than 15,000 Documerica photos have been available online for more than a decade. But they were mostly ignored until the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) decided to highlight them on its Flickr page. The public soon latched onto photos of airplanes flying perilously low over Boston neighborhoods, coal miners in a small Virginia town, and children exploring their urban and rural surroundings.

Jerry Simmons, an archives specialist at NARA, has also taken a personal interest in the photos, highlighting some on his Tumblr page, "Daily Documerica." Simmons came across the collection in 2007 when he was assigned to check the spelling of photographers' names; he soon realized that many were still alive and had gone on to produce well-known work.

Charles O'Rear, for example, took about 1,500 photos in the collection, capturing Nebraska farmlands, Hawaiian pineapple fields and myriad scenes of rural life. But outside Documerica, he is best known for "Bliss," the photo of green rolling hills and blue sky that is the default computer wallpaper for Microsoft Windows.

Simmons is now focused on the human subjects, rather than the photographers, in the collection.


To learn the names of those in a batch from New Ulm, Minn. -- where a group of 13 photography students spent a few days in 1974 capturing rural life -- Simmons called the local library. The library tacked up some of the photos on a bulletin board, and soon visitors were identifying the subjects. Simmons later spoke to one subject he had been curious about -- a young bride among her attendants.

"It is a collection that I think of as having been hiding in plain sight," he said. "Once I got just a little peek into what this was, I couldn't stop."

NARA and EPA plan to display the photos in an exposition in March 2013. But first, EPA will put on a traveling show with the photos it collects in the current "State of the Environment" project, where the public can submit photos of their surroundings through Flickr.

The aim, Falvey said, is to instill a "greater sense of responsibility" for the environment.

"Right now, I think we're hoping that the public just goes out and enjoys and appreciates the environment," she said. "We won't protect what we don't know, what we don't experience."

Looking back

That was more or less the goal of former EPA Administrator Bill Ruckelshaus when he launched Documerica in 1971, little more than one year after the agency was created. He was convinced of the project's worth by two enthusiastic EPA public-affairs employees: Gifford Hampshire and Tom Hart.

"It was a little unusual," Ruckelshaus said in a recent interview. But "it did seem to me that we had a lot of world-class photographers available to do this kind of work -- documenting the state the environment was in at the time when EPA started with a series of photos."

Photographers were paid $150 a day, plus expenses, for their efforts. Many were freelancers for National Geographic, where Hampshire had been an editor. EPA commissioned thousands of scenes of American life and nature, some more environmentally focused than others. The resulting photos were varied and vast: a butterfly alighting on a milkwort flower, trash in a marshland landfill, water pollution from a paper mill and children in a public playground all fell under the project's purpose.

Hiser, the photographer, remembers the job as less stressful than his work for National Geographic, where editors often cut stories at the last minute. For Documerica, Hampshire's staff often accepted at least some of the photographs taken for every assignment. Sometimes those assignments came from the office; other times, photographers scanned through newspapers and magazines for possible material.

Ruckelshaus hoped to document how the environment changed under EPA's watch -- or, for that matter, didn't change. But the project lost steam after he left the agency in 1973 and was gone by 1978.

Still, he said, the project's re-emergence could prove helpful to EPA at a time when Republicans are railing against regulations and what they consider EPA's overreach.

"We still have environmental problems, but they're not the ones that people notice," Ruckelshaus said, adding that "subtler" forms of pollution have taken the place of the "see, taste and smell" problems of the 1960s. "Using these photographs or new ones to recreate some of that atmosphere ... could alert the public to what the agency mission is and why it was created in the first place."

'Ahead of its time'

Documerica also gives a glimpse of the emergence of today's trends and technologies. Reynolds is still creating homes out of beer cans -- as well as tires, plastic bottles, washing machine panels and anything else that can be repurposed to make his off-the-grid homes.

His company, Earthship Biotecture, has built houses around the world. But his first experiment still stands in New Mexico -- and someone still lives in it.

"That began it. That began the mindset and thinking for building out of recycled materials," Reynolds said in a recent interview. But at the time, people thought he was "a kooky, crazy person doing kooky, crazy things in New Mexico. They didn't take it seriously."

That wasn't the view of Hiser, the photographer who captured Reynolds' efforts in 1974. He was impressed by the effort and kept track of Reynolds's work; in the 1990s, he and his wife stayed overnight in an "earthship" and considered building one of their own.

Boyd Norton, another Documerica photographer, also took interest in emerging technologies. Amid belching smokestacks and environmental hazards, his collection -- which is only available through NARA's archives -- includes several different uses of solar panels.

A few are of the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, where the Army was experimenting with a 60-foot-high solar array that focused sunlight into a small, concentrated area. Others capture Steve Baer in his solar-heated house; his company, Zomeworks, still exists today.

Norton, who specializes in wilderness photography, called the project "really very farsighted and really ahead of its time."

Ruckelshaus "had a vision for using these photos as a benchmark to look at 40, 50, 60 years from then to see where we've come, and I think it's served its purpose very well," he said.

But many were not used extensively, though EPA did host several traveling shows and used some as marketing materials.

Photographers remember seeing their photos intermittently, sometimes in a magazine and other times on an EPA poster. When the project died in 1978, the victim of shrinking budgets and shifting priorities, they all but vanished into the archives.

"At the time, shooting it, I thought the pictures would be used more. ... Anytime you do that kind of work, you feel there's worth in documenting it," said Hiser, who still works as a photographer and teacher in Aspen, Colo. "I'm very happy to see some reuse of pictures now."

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