Reviewed: “Documerica” at the National Archives
It’s eerily appropriate that the federal sequester hit just a week before the opening of the exhibit “Searching for the Seventies: The Documerica Photography Project.” At a time when the government is implementing across-the-board cuts, the National Archives is exhibiting the fruits of a five-year-long, taxpayer-funded project in which 70 photographers produced 22,000 images of—well, that’s a little vague. If this kind of program existed today, it would be destined to be ridiculed on cable TV as an example of government waste.
The project was run out of the Environmental Protection Agency, with officials envisioning it as the second coming of the famed federal program that documented the Great Depression, only this time geared toward capturing a “baseline” of existing environmental damage, to be followed by visible improvements spurred by EPA action.
Environmental problems are indeed a recurring theme in the exhibit, from belching smokestacks (top) to nuclear cooling towers to forlorn coal mining towns—but even a cursory look at the images on display makes clear that the participating photographers had more wide-ranging interests. They documented street protests, hitchhikers, pot smokers, X-rated film theaters, Hare Krishnas, and some awesomely questionable style choices, such as baby blue three-piece suits with enormous bowties. The exhibit acknowledges that officials managed their stable of photographers with a light touch. No kidding.
Far from trying to reconcile these divergent approaches, the Archives goes all in with the '70s theme, piping in classic rock and deploying funky typography. There are good images here—a man whose legs were crushed in a coal-mining accident, a father and son toting guns to ward off gasoline thieves, a towering expanse of junked cars, and a gloomy image of (to quote its almost comically disquieting caption) “strip mining on Indian burial grounds.” And some of the troubled corners the photographers ventured into, from inner-city Chicago to hardscrabble Appalachia, were more than worthy of patient photographic treatment.
Still, there’s also a lot of meandering; you can see why the Library of Congress decided to pass on the collection when it was offered (to the chagrin of the project’s founders, who wanted it to reside next to the more famous Depression-era projects now in the possession of the Library of Congress). Perhaps the most revealing tidbit in the exhibit is the existence of a new-generation documentary project now under way; this time, it’s crowd-sourced, a sign that top-down federal projects like Documerica are as out of fashion as fluorescent yellow bell bottoms.
Through Sept. 8 at the National Archives, Constitution Avenue at 9th Street, N.W. Daily 10-5 (through March 14) and 10-7 (March 15-Labor Day).