Stunning Snapshots of America in Crisis in the 1970s
By the late 1960s, the American landscape was ravaged by decades of unchecked land development, blighted by urban decay in the big cities, and plagued by seemingly unstoppable air, noise, and water pollution.
In November 1971, the newly created Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a monumental photodocumentary project to “photographically document subjects of environmental concern” in the United States. The collection, now at the National Archives, resulted in a collection of more than 20,000 photographs by its conclusion in 1978.
Water cooling towers of the John Amos Power Plant loom over a home located across the Kanawha River, near Poca, West Virginia, August 1973. (Harry Schaefer)
With support from the first EPA administrator, William Ruckelshaus, project director Gifford D. Hampshire contracted well-known photographers to work for the EPA on the project. Estimates of the number involved range between 70 and 120, and they were organized geographically, with each photographer working in a particular area in which they were already active.
Subjects photographed include urban cityscapes, small towns, rural areas, beaches and mountains. They show people going about their everyday lives as well as working in farms; waterfronts; mining and logging, industry and heavy industry. Images document junk yards, highways, Amtrak trains, air and water pollution; and environmental protection and pollution control measures.
The earliest assignments were closely aligned to the EPA’s proposed areas of concern: air and water pollution, management of solid waste, radiation and pesticides, and noise abatement. However, photographers had considerable creative freedom about what they shot. Among the areas depicted are national parks and forests, including environmentally sensitive areas that were under development or considered for government protection.
One of four bicyclists holds her ears against the roar of the jet taking off from National Airport in Washington, District of Columbia, May 1973. (John Neubauer)
Clark Avenue and Clark Avenue bridge, looking east from West 13th Street, obscured by industrial smoke, in Cleveland, Ohio, July 1973. (Frank J. Aleksandrowicz)
Balloon logging in the Culp Creek drainage area of Oregon, near Eugene.
A mountain of damaged oil drums lies in a heap in an Exxon refinery near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, December 1972. (John Messina)
A man rides in a graffiti-covered subway car in New York City, May 1973. (Erik Calonius)
Construction on Lower Manhattan’s West Side, just north of the World Trade Center, May 1973. (Wil Blanche)
Off-shore oil wells in Galveston Bay, off the Texas shore, June 1972. (Blair Pittman)
An exhibit at the first symposium on low-pollution power systems development, held at the Marriott Motor Inn, Ann Arbor, Michigan, October 1973. Vehicles and hardware were assembled at the EPA Ann Arbor Laboratory. Photo shows participants looking over the ESB “Sundancer,” an Experimental Electric Car. (Frank Lodge)
Smoke and gas from the burning of discarded automobile batteries pours into the sky near Houston, Texas, July 1972. (Marc St. Gil)
Day becomes night when industrial smog is heavy in North Birmingham, Alabama, as on this day in July of 1972. Sitting adjacent to the U.S. Pipe plant, this is the most heavily polluted area of the city. (LeRoy Woodson)
Signs crowd the roadway in this Las Vegas street scene, May 1972. (Charles O’Rear)
A train on the Southern Pacific Railroad passes a five-acre pond, which was used as a dump site by area commercial firms, near Ogden, Utah, April 1974. The acid water, oil, acid clay sludge, dead animals, junked cars and other dump debris were cleaned up by several governmental groups under the supervision of the EPA. Some 1,200,000 gallons of liquid were pumped from the site, neutralized and taken to a disposal site. (Bruce McAllister)
Two youths in Uptown, Chicago, Illinois, a neighborhood of poor white southerners, August 1974. (Danny Lyon)
Underground in the Virginia-Pocahontas Coal Company Mine #3, near Richlands, Virginia, April 1974. The tunnel is 1,250 feet below the surface and one-and-a-half miles from the elevator shaft that brings the miners to and from work. (Jack Corn)
One of several highrise apartments whose construction was stopped by city ordinance to preserve Breezy Point Peninsula in Queens, New York, for public recreational use, May 1973. (Arthur Tress)
A crowded Hollywood freeway, seen in California in May 1972. (Gene Daniels)
A “closed” sign appears in front of this Portland, Oregon, gas station in June 1973, due to a gasoline shortage. (David Falconer)
A view down Colfax Avenue, in Denver, Colorado, April 1972. (Bruce McAllister)
An abandoned car sits in New York’s Jamaica Bay, June 1973. (Arthur Tress)
Cars were jammed even more than usual into every spare space at a downtown commercial parking lot during a bus strike in Washington, District of Columbia, May 1974. Some 250,000 people were forced to find alternate forms of transportation. Monumental traffic jams resulted as drivers learned there were more cars than legal places to park. (Jim Pickerell)
Manhattan Bridge tower in Brooklyn, New York City, framed through nearby buildings, June 1974. (Danny Lyon)
An illegal dumping area, seen just off the New Jersey Turnpike, facing Manhattan across the Hudson River, March 1973. To the south is the landfill area of the proposed Liberty State Park — which was built and opened in 1976. (Gary Miller)
A sidewalk in the Bronx becomes a playground for these youngsters, April 1973. (Dan McCoy)
A Crown Zellerbach pulp mill dumps solid waste into a pond it formerly used for log storage, June 1973. (Doug Wilson)
An abandoned “Giant Slide” at Coney Island marks the decline of the area’s recreational use, May 1973. (Arthur Tress)
Youngsters on the July 4th holiday at the Kosciusko Swimming Pool in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant District, New York City, 1974. (Danny Lyon)
A dust storm rises over Phoenix, Arizona, on Labor Day, 1972. No rain had fallen in the area for 153 days. (Cornelius M. Keyes)
An aerial view of old cars secured along a bank of the Cuyahoga River to prevent erosion at Jaite North of Peninsula, Ohio, near Cleveland, seen in September of 1975. The river passes through private property at this point. The river and valley are part of the newly created Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, a 20-mile stretch of largely undeveloped land between the metropolitan districts of Cleveland and Akron. (Frank J. Aleksandrowicz)