Streams

Striking Vintage EPA Photos Show Troubling Proximity of People and Pollution in 1970s

Friday, March 29, 2013 - 09:06 AM

"Chemical plants on shore are considered prime source of pollution." (Marc St. Gil, Lake Charles, Louisiana, June 1972. National Archives, EPA Documerica Project)

These photos are beautiful. They're also sad, and hopeful, and quaint.

In the 1970s the EPA commissioned photographers to roam the country and document daily life in places like coal mines, riverbanks, cities, and even an early clean tech conference in a motel parking lot. The images were meant to be a baseline to measure change in the years to come, but there was no funding to go back to the original places.

The Documerica project photos are up on Flickr now (hat tip to FastCoExist for posting some of these gems). It's an overwhelming album of nostalgia for everyday life, but also, devastatingly depressing to see how dirty and toxic so many inhabited places could be in the 1970s ... and how little has changed in some places today.

What makes the project so powerful though, is how beautiful the photography is, even of the mundane moments, or tragic scenarios like kids playing in a river next to a power plant.

Strum through the albums yourself and share your favorites with us on our Facebook page and we'll add more pics to this post later on.

In the albums, there are also early editions of clean technology, like Frank Lodge's photos from the first First Symposium on Low Pollution Power Systems held at what seems to be a motel parking lot.

Exhibit at the First Symposium on Low Pollution Power Systems Development Held at the Marriott Motor Inn, Ann Arbor, Mich. Vehicles and Hardware Were Assembled at the EPA Ann Arbor Laboratory. Part of the Exhibit Was Held in the Motel Parking Lot the Ebs "Sundancer", an Experimental Electric Car, Gets Its Batteries Charged From an Outlet in the Parking Lot 10/1973 (Frank Lodge. National Archives, EPA Documerica Project)

 

"Children play in yard of Ruston home, while Tacoma smelter stack showers area with arsenic and lead residue." (Gene Daniels. Ruston, Washington, August 1972. National Archives, EPA Documerica Project)

 

David Falconer documented the fuel shortage in the west during the 1970s, as well as water pollution in the area at the time.  (David Falconer, National Arcives, EPA Documerica Project)

 

Miner Wayne Gipson, 39, with His Daughter Tabitha, 3. He Has Just Gotten Home From His Job as a Conveyor Belt Operator in a Non-Union Mine. as Soon as He Arrives He Takes a Shower and Changes Into Clothes to Do Livestock Chores with His Two Sons. Gipson Was Born and Raised in Palmer, Tennessee, But Now Lives with His Family near Gruetli, near Chattanooga. He Moved North to Work and Married There, But Returned Because He and His Wife Think It Is a Better Place to Live 12/1974 (Jack Corn. National Archives, EPA Documerica Project)

 Follow Alex Goldmark on Twitter @alexgoldmark

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