Forty-six years ago, the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency hired about 70 freelance photographers and charged them with one task: to document “subjects of environmental concern” across the country. The project—launched and shepherded, unlikely as it may seem now, under the Republican administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford—captured more than 20,000 images, from snapshots of smog-shrouded cities to portraits of coal mining communities, creating a map of environmental destruction and a time capsule of 1970s America. They called it Documerica.
Fast-forward to 2017 in Portland, Oregon, where one gallery is revisiting the project, albeit on a smaller scale. Newspace curator Yaelle Amir discovered Documerica about four years ago: “I was fascinated by the concept of using photography at the service of a governmental policy, and I wanted to explore it as something contemporary.”
Now she’s curating a Documerica for the 21st century. It began with an open call for recent image-based work documenting “the correlation between environmental problems and issues of race, gender, place, age, class, occupation, health care, lifestyle or others.”
More than 120 submissions were whittled down to some 30 works from nine artists, in video, digital media, and photographs, on topics from Portland’s Ross Island to America’s rural environmentalism to New York’s contaminated Hoosick Falls.
The exhibition, which includes a slide show of selected works from the original program, will run from June 2 to July 16 at Newspace.
Amir believes that in today’s political climate—the current administration proposes slashing the EPA budget and eliminating both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities—the exhibition will have particular resonance. “I see this as a watershed moment,” she says. “We need to make our voices heard, and this is just one more way of doing it, using an exhibition as a way to make a statement.”