The staid National Archives is now funky and groovy, with "Searching for the Seventies: The DOCUMERICA Photography Project", a visual time capsule of that "Me" decade, the dawning of the age of environmentalism.
Whether you lived through the 1970s or were born way after; and whether you believe in climate change, or think the climate's copacetic, get down to this exhibit and get the skinny.
The stunning vivid color images focus sharply and deeply, yet very broadly on the country's environment.
The 95 photos in the free exhibit range from:
- Smog and smokestacks, to smoking pot.
- Long lines for gas during the Arab oil embargo-caused energy crisis, to long hair for men and short skirts for women.
- Water polluted with rusting cars and toxic waste, to Watergate.
- Urban fashions, to urban "renewal" a.k.a. urban sprawl á la "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot," in Joni Mitchell's 1970 song "Big Yellow Taxi".
"Everything is connected to everything else," to quote scientist-activist Barry Commoner, a founder of modern ecology. That's demonstrated in every way in this exhibit.
It's far out, and shows how far America has come in the environmental movement. It's also a stark reminder that we must do far, far better.
The year 1970 was the dawning of the age of environmentalism, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in December 1970, which created the DOCUMERICA project to get a "visual baseline" of America.
The 1971-1977 project recorded the "desecration" and "defilement" of America's land, water, and air, wrote William D. Ruckelshaus, the EPA's first and fifth administrators, in the foreword to the exhibit's catalogue.
During that Do Your Own Thing decade, the project's 70 photographers recorded Americans doing their own environmental thing in all 50 states:
- An Oregon man holds a pistol while his boy holds a sign saying "Gas Stealers Beware We're Loaded For Bear". Gas stealing became common during the 1970s fuel crisis.
- The first "experimental electric car" is displayed at the EPA Ann Arbor Laboratory.
- Strip mining desecrates a Native American burial ground in Black Mesa, Arizona.
- A frightened woman and child are evacuated from Louisville, Kentucky after a chlorine gas spill.
- Abandoned cars, other debris, and toxic fluids float in a five-acre pond. It was cleaned up under EPA supervision to prevent contamination of Utah's Great Salt Lake and a wildlife refuge.
- Cooling towers emit clouds of steam near a river and a home in West Virginia.
- A man walks through smog that blacks out homes in North Birmingham, Alabama.
- A woman holds a glass jar of black water from her well near Steubenville, Ohio. She sued Hanna Coal Co. under newly enacted environmental laws.
- A jobless black man sits dejectedly on a windowsill of a high crime area in Chicago, which publications hail as the "black business Mecca of the world".
- A long line of commuters at Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, Maryland await an early morning express bus to Washington, D.C.
- At a Woman's Suffrage Day gathering in Fountain Square, Cincinnati, a woman in a miniskirt and old-fashioned bonnet wears a placard saying "You Have NOT Come A Long Way Baby!" Another woman in bell-bottoms wears a sign supporting the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which passed the U.S. Congress in 1972. (It failed to be ratified by enough states within the ten-year deadline, and died in 1982.)
- A woman with her baby's bed in her West Virginia office works on benefits for miners who suffer from black lung. An EPA biologist hip-deep in water in Florida, where she researches PCB contamination. (Women were coming a little way.)
- Men with long hair curling out of their hard hats are pictured in a Virginia mine and a Maryland dock.
- A long-haired, goateed man wearing a muscle-revealing, camisole-like undershirt emblazoned "USA", and hip-hugger patchwork jeans, as he and his dog hitchhike in Arizona.
Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero, who says he still has his Nehru jacket, told me at the exhibit's press preview, "We have such a range of images and records, billions, and every one is worth a thousand stories."
For these 1970s crucial stories and issues, we're still searching and researching for solutions and resolutions.
As The Temptations sang in 1970, "Ball of confusion, That's what the world is today..."
For more info: "Searching for the Seventies: The DOCUMERICA Photography Project", http://www.archives.gov/nae/visit/gallery.html, Mar. 8 through Sept. 8, free, at National Archives, Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery, on the National Mall, Constitution Avenue at 7th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 1-866-272-6272. Calendar of Events, www.archives.gov/calendar, 202-357-5000. Exhibition curated by Bruce Bustard, National Archives Senior Curator. Some 16,000 DOCUMERICA images are available online by location, www.archives.gov/research/arc/topics/environment/documerica-geographic.html, by topic, www.archives.gov/research/arc/topics/environment/documerica-topics.html, and by photographer www.archives.gov/research/arc/topics/environment/documerica-geographic.html. Many DOCUMERICA images are on Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/collections/72157620729903309.