Jul 24, 2013

The DOCUMERICA Project: America in the 1970s

The picture above perfectly captures New York in the 1970s.

New York had an unvarnished, gritty, almost-but-not-quite charming menace to its decay and deterioration, very different than the cleaned up, gentrified New York you would see today.

The picture at left is what the same street looks like today (click on it for a larger view).

The DOCUMERICA project was a government program sponsored by the EPA to document areas of environmental concern during the 1970s, and sent well known photographers out across the country to photograph America in the 1970s. The result is a treasure trove of slide images that have recently been digitized and put on line.

These pictures are from New York, which perfectly capture the state of decay and gritty atmosphere typical of the city from that era.  The other pictures are from other parts of the country. I've gone through the huge number of photos and picked out some of the best ones for this blog. The photos are like stepping back in time.

Readers of this blog know how fascinated I am with old slide images (see Found Slides, A Life Remembered). I grew up in the 1970s; my dad bought a brand new, forest green Gran Torino station wagon with all the options, and I spent many hours with my brother sitting in the rear seat that faces the tailgate on long trips. This car was huge, with a huge V8 engine and a mile-long hood.

The EPA's Flickr page has a massive collection of images to browse through that really capture an era. Many of the slides have taken on a reddish-violet cast, indicating that the slides were beginning to deteriorate before they were scanned. I have removed the color cast and punched up the saturation and contrast a bit to make the images a little clearer. Here are only a few examples of some of the better ones.

Click on each image to super-size it.

As a car fanatic, this picture makes me sad...all those awesome vintage cars discarded and stacked like cord wood, when today they would be like rolling works of art amid the bland appliances we drive today, devoid of personality and character. Sigh.

The 1970s brought the energy crisis, and gasoline shortage. Gas stations had no gas to sell, and rationed the gas they did have, allowing motorists to buy only a couple of gallons at a time. Long lines formed as people waited to buy enough gas to get to and from work.

The drawback of having gargantuan cars as daily drivers became clear, leading to a focus on smaller, more fuel efficient cars that emitted less pollution. It was this demand that the Japanese exploited so nimbly with their small, fuel efficient imports that had previously been laughed at. Detroit's first efforts to make small cars were abject mechanical failures. 

The gas crisis brought an interest in small, fuel-efficient design concepts, none of which went anywhere, and were more curiosities than anything else.

The pictures that follow are from other parts of the country. Below, some examples of visual pollution in rural Tennessee.

Heavy traffic was the price we paid for having huge cars and a lack of interest in public transportation

Boating near the Ohio River, 1973 

Typing class in high school, 1973. Learning how to type was a staple of high school secretarial studies

DOCUMERICA photographer David Hiser in Utah, 1972
In the 1970s, with millions of aluminum cans littering the nation's highways, streams and rivers, an experimentation was begun to build homes out of aluminum cans, surrounding them with mortar mix. A small number of homes were built in this fashion. Below, the interior of one such home.There are more pictures of this concept on the DOCUMERICA site (link below)

Migrant sheep shearers, Texas, 1973

Scenic overlook in Colorado, 1973

Below: sulfur pollution from a chemical plant in Alabama

To check out the amazing galleries of photo albums from the DOCUMERICA project, click on the link in the link list at the right, or HERE.

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