Gifford Hampshire, or “Giff,” as he was called, was a farm kid living in Kansas during the 1930s. Dust Bowl scenes were familiar to him, so it is not surprising that he was taken with iconic images, like Dorothea Lange’s "Migrant Mother,” from the Farm Security Administration’s photography project in the 1930s.
“All his adult life, Hampshire had hoped to do something comparable,” says Bruce Bustard, a senior curator at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
Hampshire studied journalism at the University of Missouri in the late 1940s, where he rubbed shoulders with former FSA photographers, and, in the mid-1950s, he nabbed a prized position as a photo editor at National Geographic. But, it wasn’t until 1971, after he had joined the newly created Environmental Protection Agency, that Hampshire launched the national photography project that would become his legacy—DOCUMERICA.
“DOCUMERICA was born out of the environmental awakening of the 1970s,” explains Bustard. The EPA, for which Hampshire worked as deputy director of public affairs, invited photographers, from students to Pulitzer Prize winners, to pitch series that focused on “subjects of environmental concern.”
These proposals ranged from the overtly environmental—chronicling the goings-on at a car inspection station in Ohio—to looser, artistic explorations of tourism and suburban sprawl. Hampshire and his colleagues then doled out assignments, ranging from weeks to months in length. “The job paid $150 a day, plus expenses, and all the film you could shoot,” says Bustard.
From 1971 to 1977, DOCUMERICA contracted 70 photographers. All combined, they logged 115 assignments in every region of the country, totaling more than 20,000 images. “There are a lot of expected images. You see photographs of smog, junkyards, polluted streams and dead fish,” says Bustard of the collection, now held at the National Archives. “But, DOCUMERICA had a broader vision of what the environment was. The photographs also capture the decade’s fashions, trends and lifestyles.”
“Searching for the Seventies: The DOCUMERICA Photography Project,” a new exhibition at the National Archives, features about 90 color photographs culled from the collection. The landscapes and portraits were reproduced from preserved Kodachrome and Ektachrome originals, and, as a result, show the vivid colors of the times (and, of course, the baby blue leisure suits).
“Memories may fade and shift, but the records preserved in the National Archives help us to uncover how things really looked,” says David S. Ferriero, archivist of the United States.
View this selection of photographs from “Searching for the Seventies: The DOCUMERICA Photography Project,” on display in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives through September 8, 2013. Other images can be found, here, on Flickr.