Imagine a photo collage of America.
The iconic shape of Delicate Arch would be a natural element. So would the colors of vast, cerulean skies above cattle grazing the western range.
But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has something bigger in mind. It’s asking Americans everywhere to piece together a snapshot that spans the globe and casts an eye backward 40 years.
The “State of the Environment” crowd-souring photo project takes place during the 24 hours of the 41st Earth Day on Sunday.
Jeanethe Falvey, who works for EPA’s web communications team, said the idea sprouted from her discovery of the agency’s forgotten Documerica project.
Just a year old at the time, the EPA had recruited about 100 freelance photographers, sent each of them 300 rolls of Kodachrome film and promised a daily stipend for a month’s worth of photographing the nation, eco-warts and all. They produced a collection of around 16,000 images now in the collection of the National Archives and posted on a Flickr web page.
“Many people didn’t know they existed,” she said of the images in the collection. “It blew everyone away.”
The photographers, said writer Roger Archibald in a recent article about Documerica, had just two guidelines:
“First, establish a 1972 baseline of the environmental problems and accomplishments in the geographical area assigned to you.
“Second, look for pictures wherever you are, for whatever purpose. Where you see people, there’s an environmental element to which they are connected. The great Documerica pictures will show the connection and what it means.”
The resulting pictures include everything from someone holding a jar of brown, undrinkable water to scenic views, like the images taken almost exactly 40 years ago by Colorado photographer David Hiser.
He took some friends with him to the energy fields of Rifle, Colorado, a beer-can home project in Taos, New Mexico, and Utah’s redrock country.
His images include world-famous views from Dead Horse Point and the scenic Moab landfill, with the snow-capped La Sal Range on the horizon. His photos captured Jeep tracks tearing up the desert, a watering hole trampled by cattle in Canyonlands National Park, as well as a shot of the night sky behind Delicate Arch in Arches National Park.
Hiser, now 75 and retired after a 20-year career taking pictures for National Geographic, recalled the documentary tradition of the Farm Service Administration, which hired photographers like Dorthea Lange to capture the Great Depression on film.
“There was a feeling there was a tradition, it had been proven, and I was a part of it,” he said. “Once you’re out there, you go into your documentarian role.”
For Bill Gillette, then a graduate student wrapping up his dissertation, Documerica came at an important time: he needed money badly. Plus, it gave him a chance to photograph the people and places of the West.
He photographed ranchers. And he went to the uranium towns of Uravan and Nucla, Colo., where he had worked underground for four years, to take pictures of the mines and the environmental damage that had become part of the landscape.
Gillette, now 80, likes the idea of revisiting those places and photographing what they look like now.
“We can say, ‘Here’s what was, here’s what is and here’s what needs to be.”
Falvey is hoping to get photographs this year from every state.
“The hope is we can show a moment in time,” she said. “For me, I can’t think of anything more powerful, a better way to connect.”