Thursday, March 28, 2013

The 1970s: Documenting Unfettered American Capitalism; Result—Pollution & Industrial Waste

American Industry

America Of The 1970s: The Economist writes: “Industrial smog blacks out homes adjacent to 
the North Birmingham pipe plant.” 
Photo Credit: Leroy Woodson, Birmingham, Alabama, July 1972.
Source: The Economist

An article in The Economist looks at a photographic project that documents how America in the 1970s was a land filled with pollution and industrial waste. The work, done by almost 70 photographers between 1970 and 72, were commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA. Gifford Hampshire, a former photo editor, at National Geographic selected the photos looking at the nation’s environment.

The article (“The spoils of industry;” March 26, 2013) states:
With Arthur Rothstein, an FSA veteran, as his adviser, Hampshire sought to create not just a “visual baseline” from which future environmental improvements could be measured, but also a broader vision of the country as a whole. “Where you see people there’s an environmental element to which they are connected,” he told his photographers. “The great DOCUMERICA pictures will show the connection and what it means.” The result was a project of immense breadth and scale, producing almost 22,000 images over five years that spanned the continent, from kitsch New York suburbia to polluted Louisiana beaches; sprawling Texas motorways to chemical spills in Kentucky; sun-bleached farmers in Minnesota to black muslims in Chicago. This project has not been exhibited in public since its 1970s heyday.
A small but fascinating selection is now on show at the National Archives in Washington, DC. The exhibition shows how a photographic shorthand was being created for decades of ensuing environmental reportage—pools of toxic sludge, oil-covered birds, power stations belching out fumes. It also paints a clear picture of the trends, fashions and cultural shifts taking place in the 1970s, despite the obfuscating smog.
In contrast to the monochromatic images of the FSA, which seem to depict a world of basic subsistence drained of all comfort, the colour-saturated photographs of DOCUMERICA speak of a country overflowing with the deadly side-products of plenty. A boy is shown walking towards his clapboard house over which looms a smelter chimney belching out fumes into a cobalt blue sky. Rusting automobiles abandoned in a toxic pond look like ancient creatures oozing out of primordial sludge—a whole new type of traffic jam.
It does not make a pretty picture, but it’s not supposed to. It’s important is to document how things appeared in the early 1970s when environmental standards in the U.S. (and elsewhere, including Canada) were comparably more lax than they are today. Such photos ought to be viewed as a cautionary tale against allowing companies to freely go ahead, unfettered, with their plans of exploiting the earth without the need to plan for the future; such companies are not the best at environmental compliance unless tough regulations persuade them otherwise.

You can read the rest of the article and view the other photos at [The Economist]


  1. No country is more polluted than China. One of the tools necessary to combat pollution is a free press. Dictatorships, by their nature, are more subject to pollution than democracies.

    1. This is true about China's horrible air pollution; but it's interesting to see how America literally cleaned up its act in the last 40 years. Democracies often need persuasion, in the way of government regulation and a free press, to change their practices.


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