From The Lean-To: Documerica

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I've spent too much time in front of the computer, sitting at the minituare aqua-green cafe table that overlooks my block, cold beer in hand, gazing at the Documerica photos that grace the National Archives' Flickr pages. The bright reds and oranges of the desert rocks, the old Appalachian Trail signs, the midnight campfires, that, for no reason other than being lit sometime in the mid 70's, just seem cooler than any fire I've ever lit.

And sure, if the lighting is right and the shorts are short enough, a Saturday on the Appalachian Trail can seem like an old Paul Petzold movie. But if it's about enjoying the fine art of getting lost in the internet's photos, imaging how much better the peanut butter sandwiches were back then, how much heavier the packs felt (I'm sure the extra weight made you a better hiker, right?) and how much more abundant the wildlife was, then head to Documerica.

The Environmental Protection Agency, whose mission is to “protect human health and the environment,” was started in December of 1970, the same year as Earth Day, under the Nixon administration. The EPA was a response to the mass environmental movement that was happening across the country.

The following Decemeber, one year after the formation of the EPA, the agency inititated Project Documerica to document the successes and failures of the EPA in battling environmental degradation. “EPA has a clear mandate to arrest pollution and to help improve the American environment,” said William D. Ruckelshaus, head of the EPA, in a 1971 press release. “We are working toward a new environmental ethic in this decade which will bring profound change in how we live, and in how we provide for future generations. It is important that we document that change so future generations will understand our successes and our failures.”

More than 100 photographers were hired on a freelance basis, all of whom submitted their own project ideas, and by 1974, there were over 81,000 photographs taken across the country. Those 81,000 were eventually whittled down to 22,000, and when made available to the public, started showing up in newspapers, textbooks, and eventually, Flickr and my MacBook.

Whatever the story is behind this collection of photos is obviously not as interesting as the photos themselves, documenting everything from an Alaskan pipeline development, syrup farming, Navajo and Hopi reservations, and one of my favorite sets of photographs in existence, David Hiser's photos from the American southwest with Glen Denny, pictured at the top.

So, grab some coffee, energy bars, beer, whatever it is that keeps you awake, and get lost in these photos. It'll take you a good while and it is damn well worth every minute.

See the rest of the collection here and read more about the Documerica project here.

Jeff Thrope is the editor and founder of Cold Splinters. For more ways to pretend you're sleeping under the stars instead of reading the Internet, visit and


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