16 Photographs That Capture the Best and Worst of 1970s America

A new exhibit at the National Archives highlights an interesting decade—one that gave rise to the environmental movement and some awkward fashion

“Great Kills Park, Staten Island.” Arthur Tress, Staten Island, New York, May 1973
“Abandoned automobiles and other debris clutter an acid water and oil filled five acre pond. It was cleaned up under EPA supervision to prevent possible contamination of Great Salt Lake and a wildlife refuge nearby.” Bruce McAllister, near Ogden, Utah, April 1974.
“Mary Workman holds a jar of undrinkable water that comes from her well, and she has filed a damage suit against the Hanna Coal Company. She has to transport water from a well many miles away although the coal company owns all the land around her, and many roads are closed, she refuses to sell.” Eric Calonius, near Steubenville, Ohio, October 1973
“Exhibit at the first symposium on low pollution power systems development held at the Marriott Motor Inn, Ann Arbor. Vehicles and hardware were assembled at the EPA Ann Arbor Laboratory. Part of the exhibit was held in the motel parking lot. Photo shows participants looking over the ESB “Sundancers,” an experimental electric car.” Frank Lodge, Ann Arbor, Michigan, October 1973
“Dorothy Thierolf, Ocean Beach businesswoman and leader of the fight to reopen nearby beach to auto traffic. To protect clam beds the state government had banned cars from a short stretch of beach during the summer months on August 12, 1972. Ms Thierolf led a demonstration in which 200 cars drove two miles through the prohibited section of the beach to protest the ban.” Gene Daniels, Ocean Beach, Washington, August 1972
“Mr. and Mrs. Berry Howard of Cumberland, Kentucky, and the new truck he just bought with some of his black lung payments. He retired from the mines several years ago. The disease results from coal dust particles filling air sacs in the lungs and causes a progressive shortness of breath.” Jack Corn, Cumberland, Kentucky, October 1974
“Children play in yard of Ruston home, while Tacoma smelter stack showers area with arsenic and lead residue.” Gene Daniels, Ruston, Washington, August 1972.
“Near the town of Wisconsin Dells the Wisconsin River channels through deep, soft sandstone cliffs, cutting rock into fantastic shapes. These natural splendors have given rise to a booming tourist industry. People come in droves, often in campers and trailers. Boat trips, shops, bars, and diversions of every kind vie for patronage in an amusement complex extending 2 or 3 miles beyond the town.” Jonas Dovydenas, Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, September 1973
“Industrial smog blacks out homes adjacent to North Birmingham pipe plant. This is the most heavily polluted area of the city.” Leroy Woodson, Birmingham, Alabama, July 1972
"Young woman watches as her car goes through testing at an auto emission inspection station in Downtown Cincinnati, Ohio.” Lyntha Scott Eiler, Cincinnati, OH, September 1975.
“Chemical plants on shore are considered prime source of pollution.” Marc St. Gil, Lake Charles, Louisiana, June 1972
“Cyclist in front of environmental center.” Thomas Sennett, Humbolt County, California, May 1972
“Hitchhiker with his dog, ‘Tripper,’ on U.S. 66. U.S. 66 crosses the Colorado River at Topock.” Charles O’Rear, Yuma County, Arizona, May 1972
"The painted bus is home." David Hiser, Rifle, Colorado, October 1972
“Inexpensive retirement hotels are a hallmark of the South Beach Area. A favored place is the front porch, where residents sit and chat or watch the activities on the beach.” Flip Shulke, South Beach, Miami Beach, Florida, June 1973
"Michigan Avenue, Chicago" (couple on street) Perry Riddle, Chicago, Illinois, July 1975

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.