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Picturing the Changing American City in the 1970s Photography from the NEA Photography Surveys and the EPA Documerica Project

par Mark Rice

Mark Rice is professor of American Studies at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York (USA). His first book, Through the Lens of the City: NEA Photography Surveys of the 1970s, was published in 2005 by the University Press of Mississippi. His second book, Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands: Photography, Film, and the Colonial Philippines, was published in 2014 by the University of Michigan Press, and in 2015 by the Ateneo de Manila University Press in the Philippines, where it was the winner of the Gintong Aklat (Golden Book) Award for Social Sciences in 2016. Rice has returned to his interest in photographic representations of cities, and in recent years has written essays for photobooks depicting Los Angeles and Rochester, New York.


When Raphaele Bertho first contacted me, she asked me if I’d be willing to discuss photography, specifically from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), that reveal patterns of urban growth and change in the 1970s. I published a book on the subject in 2005, Through the Lens of the City, and I’m grateful that more than 15 years later there’s still some interest in what I wrote about. For this paper I’m going to expand my focus to include another project in the 1970s that had some parallels to the work being done by the NEA. That project was called Documerica, a portmanteau of “documentary” and “America,” and was sponsored by a different agency of the federal government called the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). So two different federal agencies were involved in two significant photography projects in the 1970s.


The 1970s provided the right mix of conditions for projects such as the NEA photography surveys and DOCUMERICA to emerge. For one thing, photography was coming to be taken more seriously as an art form than it had been in previous decades, allowing for a greater sense of purpose to be attached to these projects. Second, both the NEA and the EPA were relatively new federal agencies, the NEA having been established in 1965 and the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. And then, also in the 1970s, many Americans became increasingly interested in vague notions of history and heritage, brought about in part by the nation’s bicentennial celebration of 1976. Finally, there was a growing chorus of concerned about the shape of American cities in the 1970s, a concern born of air pollution from auto emissions, the rise of sprawling suburbs, the networks of highways that seemed to facilitate both.


So, through much of the 1970s (from 1972 to 1977 in the case of DOCUMERICA, and 1976 to 1981 for the NEA photography surveys) photographers received government support to turn their cameras to American landscapes, both natural and built, in order to preserve a record of what they saw. In both projects are photographers using a wide range of photographic styles. Some generalizations can be made about each. One stands out in particular: the DOCUMERICA project was more documentary / photojournalistic in approach, often but not always employing handheld 35 millimeter cameras. The NEA project was more self-consciously artistic in its approach, often, though again not always, employing view cameras mounted on tripods. An example from each (Voir Fig. 1) , both with the same subject matter of highways in Los Angeles, show some compositional similarities (like the highway coming down diagonally across the frame) but the view from the NEA is clearly more artistic in its approach, whereas the one from DOCUMERICA seem to be interested really just in recording visually the conditions of air pollution that we can see here.


DOCUMERICA was easily the larger of the two projects, both in terms of the number of photographs taken and in the number archived for posterity. Freelance photographers with varying degrees of professional experience were hired by the EPA to document conditions in the areas where they lived, resulting in tens of thousands of photographs being taken across the country. By contrast, the NEA photography surveys grants were awarded based on applications by sponsoring agencies who commissioned the photographers, and each project carried its own name (see, for example, the photograph by Bill Owens from the Los Angeles Documentary Project). Fewer than one hundred grants were funded over the six years, and although there was an expectation that a set of prints will be sent to the NEA for archiving, not every project complied, resulting a less than complete record of the project. Not all of the shoot projects within DOCUMERICA and the NEA surveys focused on cities either, but given our current interest in photographs of American cities, I will limit my discussion to those projects that did focus on cities.


One thing that is important to say at the outset is that thematic coherence isn’t easily found in Documerica. As one scholar put it, the project « reveals a sprawling, diffuse, increasingly fragmented array of environments, natural, social, and cultural. They’re at once national and highly specific, images produced under political and economic pressures that were largely invisible to the photographers who confronted them » (Shubinski 4-5). Of course, widely represented in the DOCUMERICA archive are photographs of cities too, lots and lots of photographs of cities. (Voir Fig. 2)


In the 1970s in the United States, a lot of people felt a lot of anxiety about the current conditions and future of American cities. There are several reasons for this. One is that many major American cities were in a state of economic decline that threatened to strangle them with increases in crime and decreases in public services. Another reason is that the arterial roadways that were the bedrock of the American transportation system were leading to increased traffic and increased air pollution, and were cutting deeper and further into previously pristine landscapes. Yet another reason was the increasing suburban sprawl and the growth of American urban areas in the South and in the West, the so called « Sun Belt », that embraced low density suburban development over the higher density cities that had previously dominated American urban life. As one scholar put it,  « Sun Belt cities were outpacing the traditional urban centers of the Northeast and the west belt, and they were organized differently along the spatial lines of the  suburbs » (Shubinski 145).


In the photograph seen in figure 2, the World Trade Center buildings are shot from below, so as to emphasize their monumentality. In another photograph of New York by Gary Miller (Voir Fig. 3) , though the Twin towers are visible in the distance, they are dwarfed spatially by the piles of construction waste and other garbage piling up across the Hudson river from Manhattan. There’s something symbolic in this photograph. The World Trade Center, with an emphasis on global commerce, indicated the future of the American economy, one less reliant on manufacturing and more reliant on the invisible networks of finance where the movement of money makes more money. This new direction for the American economy was cause and consequence for the shuttering of manufacturing factories in the Northeast and west belt, and the movement of jobs and people to be upstart cities of the Sun Belt.


(Voir Fig. 4) The caption for this photograph in New York spells out some of the concerns of the day. The city sits draped in smog, smokestacks in the foreground belching out more. The ribbon of highway that cuts across the frame doesn’t actually isolate one neighborhood from another, the way the caption says, because it is positioned along the waterfront. But highways like this one did cut in neighborhoods in many American cities, the need for speed and efficient movement of cars taking precedence over the needs of walkable neighborhoods. (Voir Fig. 5) A photograph taken by John White in Chicago shows one such highway, the Dan Ryan Expressway that opened in the 1960s displacing thousands of residents in the process.


There are many other photographs showing the expansion of expressways in the DOCUMERICA project. One of these shows the destruction of a stand of hardwood trees in order to make space for one of the many interstate highways and turnpike spurs that crisscross that part of Pennsylvania, (Voir Fig. 6) while another photograph shows a new interstate in the arid regions of southern New Mexico, an area known for monsoon rains that occasionally sweep through, hence the need for the drain seen in the photograph. New Mexico and its neighboring states of Texas and Arizona are smack in the middle of the Sun Belt.


In photographs (Voir Fig. 7) by Cornelius Keys and Bob Smith, we see two quintessential Sun Belt cities, Phoenix, Arizona, and Dallas, Texas. Between 1968 and 1980, the population of Dallas grew from around 680,000 to more than 900,000. At the same time, Phoenix grew from under 450,000 to nearly 800,000.  They’re also two of the least walkable cities in the United States. Walking through Phoenix has been described as « like a slog through a desert, plus the occasional McDonald’s » (Brown). Dallas « sprawls mightily built on the back of a housing boom that prioritized horizontal space to vertical density» (Brown).  We can see both of these things in photographs. The mammoth highway being constructed in Dallas stretches nearly into infinity, while the grid lines of Phoenix map out a huge city with almost no urban core. In the 1970s, these were the cities of the future. Indeed Phoenix is now the fifth largest city in the United States in population, and sprawls over 500 square miles, while the Dallas metropolitan area is the fourth most populous one of the United States, with more than 7.5 million people.


I will return to the NEA photography now, which was the subject of my 2005 book, Through the Lens of the City: NEA Photography Surveys of the 1970s. I became aware of the surveys while I was a graduate student at the University of Hawaii in the late 1990s. I was interested in 1970s American landscape photography of the New Topographics variety that came to prominence through a 1975 exhibition that included photographs by Frank Gohlke, Joe Deal, Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, and others. Browsing through exhibition catalogs, I kept coming across acknowledgments thanking the NEA for providing a survey grant. So I started exploring what those were all about. Briefly, through much of the 1970s, the NEA maintained several different grant categories for photography, an indication of the medium’s exalted status in that decade. In addition to grants for individual photographers, the NEA had grants for photography exhibition, photography publication and photography surveys. The surveys category was explicitly designed to help bridge a perceived gap separating artistic photography from documentary photography. As one observer put it, the surveys were « intended to give creative photographers a social function » (Grundberg 212).


This photograph taken by Joe Deal [Note: the DOCUMERICA photographs are in the public domain and so I am comfortable including those. For any photographs not in the public domain, I will provide links to where those photographs can be found.] was one of the series he took in Albuquerque, New Mexico, another booming Sun Belt city. When we view some of his photographs from the 1975 New Topographics exhibition alongside the DOCUMERICA photograph of Phoenix, we can begin to get a sense of some of the important differences between the NEA project and DOCUMERICA. The photograph of Phoenix appears to be primarily about visual information about the city, artless not in the self-conscious style of the New Topographics photography, but artless in a more prosaic way. There’s a little sense of compositional decision making beyond « let’s show how sprawling the city is ». Joe Deal, on the other hand, was committed to a rigorous formal style. He chose to shoot square negatives, studiously making sure that no horizon line crept into the frame, and positioning the main subject of his photographs directly in the middle of the photograph. The new housing designs that he recorded around the edge of the city are almost like insect specimens pinned to a board.


Note: Much of the following four paragraphs comes more or less directly from Through the Lens of the City. Instead of employing quotation marks, I will use italics to indicate passages from the book:

As it turned out, Joe Deal would go on to participate in one of the NEA photography surveys, the same one that Bill Owens took part in, which was called the Los Angeles Documentary Project. In this Diamond Bar’s photograph, taken from this survey, Joe Deal explored the efforts of people to create place out of placelessness. As the cultural geographer, J.B. Jackson said about Deal’s work that “he shows us the beginnings of a landscape, the first gropings toward form and permanence” (5). Jonathan Green describes Deal ‘s work as being about “the intersection of the social and natural world,” a place that “has not yet solidified into urban center or suburb” (173). As forlorn at the backyards might appear to the viewer and as invasive as the photographs appear in terms of how he took them, Deal wasn’t wholly critical of the residents of Diamond Bar. Although Deal resists suggestions that he was sympathetic to the efforts of the owners of the homes to give individual shape to their yards, he recognizes the worthiness of such efforts, saying that his interest « is as much in how individual home owners shape the space in the backyards as in the larger phenomenon of suburban development » (Rice 177-178).


Developments like Diamond bar were increasingly the norm around Los Angeles at that time. Deal stated that there was nothing unusual about Diamond bar, and he chose Diamond bar to represent the new Los Angeles. Although people are mostly absent from Deal’s photographs, his peering over fences clearly built to ensure privacy undermined the efforts at establishing privacy about the people we don’t see, denying them the ability to live the private lives that likely compelled some of them to move out to the suburbs. In fact, Deal’s photographs are like the surveillance photographs that become ubiquitous in contemporary society. While seeking order in the unfinished vernacular landscape being carved out of hillsides, Deal’s photographs seem to also be saying that efforts toward establishing individual existence in this brave new world are futile. Even in the privacy of their fencing backyard, people are accessible and visible, their facade stripped away to reveal what goes on in the hidden corners of their lives (Rice 178-179).


Another participant in the Los Angeles Documentary Project was Robert Flick, who emphasized the horizon line and the sprawling teeming nature of the city. Flick photographed throughout Greater L.A., moving from downtown Los Angeles to Venice Beach to the Los Angeles Expressway, and his grids made each site co-equal with the others. This fact, coupled with the lack of centering anchor in any of the grids, highlighted the decentered nature of the city itself:  « what has always struck me about the city is the possibility of the scan….I was concerned about the fracturing of urban spaces ». Flick’s scan of Los Angeles becomes the viewer’s scan of both the city and his photographs (Rice 182).


Flick continued his approach to photography in Los Angeles into the 1990s. The 1996 book Rethinking Los Angeles contains a portfolio of Flick, just called « On Pico boulevard looking North ». The books primary editor, Michael Dear, interviewed Flick and opened their conversation with the exclamation: “Robert, the first time I saw your work, I immediately thought: that’s it, that’s Los Angeles! That’s exactly how I see the city. From the street and at speed, it’s a punctual linear experience….The city is perceived essentially as an interrupted sequence” (Rice 184).


When asked to join the Los Angeles documentary project, Flick later recalled that he thought “the idea was totally crazy. How do you photograph Los Angeles in a single photograph ?!” (Quoted in Jones 66). As one observer has pointed out, « without a notable skyline (as in New York) or an impressive monument (as in Paris), L.A. evades any single frame representation.  Indeed, what confounds most visitors to the city is the lack of a center,  a place from which to orient oneself. L.A. is actually a city of many cities, connected by a system of never ending boulevards and freeways, that make driving essential to one’s experience” (Jones 66).


On the other side of the country, another Sun Belt city, Atlanta, Georgia, was the site of two NEA photography surveys, both undertaken by Martin Stupich. For the first survey, awarded in 1977, Stupich « documented the development of Atlanta’s rapid transit system, MARTA, which stands for the metropolitan Atlanta, the regional transit authority. Images depict downtown Atlanta, prior to the construction MARTA, employees involved in the creation of MARTA, and the construction of the real way from its initial stages ». In his second grant, awarded in 1979, Stupich expanded his scope illustrating the city’s “role as a center of transportation. Images included railroad shops and roundhouses, parking garages, parking lots, highway widening projects, demolition of buildings, airplanes, MARTA stations, viaducts and bridges, aerial photographs, drive-in theaters, and billboards advertising transportation nodes” (Kenan).


The focus of much of his work was the construction of Atlanta’s rapid transit system, the construction of which began in 1975. Trains didn’t begin running on the system until 1979, so he was working very much in the heart of the construction phase. The captions for many of his photographs are very detailed in their descriptions, an indication that he was aware of the future historical significance of his work. It is perhaps unsurprising but he went on to have a long career, documenting historic buildings and historic engineering projects for the federal government’s HABS/HAER Project (the Historic American Buildings Survey and the Historic American Engineering Record). His meticulous documentation gives an added layer of usefulness to the photographs. It would be possible to return to those sites today, and do « before and after » comparisons to see how much Atlanta has continued to change over the past 45 years.


Stupich was interested in recording other changes that matter too. This photograph shows the demolition of an historically significant library, the Carnegie library. The Carnegie library was built in the early 20th century as the city’s first public library. It was built in a Beaux Art style. Atlanta’s rapid growth in the 1970s made the library feel outdated to civic leaders. It was torn down in 1977 and a new library was built on the same spot. In this photograph, which came from the latter grant that he had for documenting Atlanta, Stupich presents Atlanta as a wholly new city, almost space-age in its elevated transportation networks and geometric forms of its new skyscrapers. There’s very little of the old city left visible here; it’s all gone.


American urban growth in the 1970s was rapid, local, and seemingly chaotic at times. Aside from environmental laws and local zoning codes and local ordinances, there are very few fixed rules about how cities should look like or how transportation networks should work. Many people lamented the low-density cities of the Sun Belt, but other Americans loved him and continue to flock to them. They might be unsustainable in the long term, but migration patterns over the past several decades reveal that many Americans don’t care. They have become, for better or worse, the quintessential American city.


For decades after the projects ended, DOCUMERICA and the NEA photography surveys were largely forgotten, except perhaps by the men and women who took the photographs. For the past 15 years or so that has begun to change. In addition to my book on the NEA photography surveys, there’s been at least one doctoral dissertation written about the DOCUMERICA, along with several articles plumbing the archive for interesting images in the 1970’s. The Atlantic magazine has run several photo essays with DOCUMERICA images and a new website –  is working to restore and post the images. A lot of the images had significant redshift because of the degradation of the acetate film, so scanning and color correcting is an important project. The National Archives has digitized more than 15 000 images and there’s a flickr collection of DOCUMERICA photographs. The NEA photography surveys have not received as much sustained attention as a whole, but the individual surveys have continued to receive some attention. I attribute that in part to the different designs of the two projects.  Had there been a central repository of all the NEA photography surveys, it’s possible that they too would get more attention.


There might be another reason for less attention paid to the NEA project and that is the artfulness of them. About 1000 of photographs have found their way to the Smithsonian American Art Museum where some have been digitized and made available online, and where they are sometimes put on display. The Museum has also created a series of instructional videos and other instructional materials based on some of the surveys. For many Americans, museums have a feel of rarified air and the objects found in them feel distant. That the NEA photography surveys occupy a space of “art” might make them seem less approachable (for lack of a better word) than the DOCUMERICA photography. Whatever the reason, I think both of these projects merit more attention and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to share them with you.


Figure 1 :

Gene Daniels, Interstate 405 (San diego Freeway) in West Los Angeles, mai 1972, From the Documerica Project, The Environmental Protection Agency’s Program to Photographically Document Subjects of Environmental Concern, 1972-1977 , 1972-1977 @1972, Daniels Gene

Figure 2 :

  1. Gene Daniels, Los Angeles in Heavy Smog, septembre 1973, From the Documerica Project, The Environmental Protection Agency’s Program to Photographically Document Subjects of Environmental Concern, 1972-1977 @1973, Daniels Gene
  2. Tom Hubbard, D’aug Days (Pronounced Dog) Is a Month Long Presentation of All the Arts at Downtown Cincinnati’s Immensely Popular Public Plaza, Fountain Square. Rock Band Entertains at Noon, août 1973, From the Documerica Project, The Environmental Protection Agency’s Program to Photographically Document Subjects of Environmental Concern, 1972-1977 @1973, Tom Hubbard.
  3. Wil Blanche, Overlooking the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan, the Towers of the World Trade Center Soar Skyward to a Height of 1,350 Feet, mai 1973, From the Documerica Project, The Environmental Protection Agency’s Program to Photographically Document Subjects of Environmental Concern, 1972-1977 @1973, Wil Blanche.

Figure 3 :

Gary Miller, Illegal Dumping Area off the New Jersey Turnpike, Facing Manhattan Across the Hudson River. Nearby, to the South, Is the Landfill Area of the Proposed Liberty State Park, mars 1973, From the Documerica Project, The Environmental Protection Agency’s Program to Photographically Document Subjects of Environmental Concern, 1972-1977 @1973, Gary Miller.

Figure 4 :

Alexander Hoper, Manhattan Pollution, juin 1974, From the Documerica Project, The Environmental Protection Agency’s Program to Photographically Document Subjects of Environmental Concern, 1972-1977 @1974, Alexander Hope.

Figure 5 :

John White, Heavy Traffic On The Dan Ryan Expressway In Chicago Illinois. It Is The Busiest In The United States With 254,700 Vehicles Daily, According To Figures Released In March, 1975, By The Federal Department Of Transportation. The Kennedy Expressway In Chicago Is The Second Busiest (not Shown) With 234,100 Vehicles Per Day, septembre 1973, From the Documerica Project, The Environmental Protection Agency’s Program to Photographically Document Subjects of Environmental Concern, 1972-1977 @1973, John White.

Figure 6 :

  1. Swanson Dick, Pennsylvania, North West Philadelphia, août 1973, From the Documerica Project, The Environmental Protection Agency’s Program to Photographically Document Subjects of Environmental Concern, 1972-1977 @1973, Swanson Dick
  2. Danny Lyon, Interstate 25, avril 1972, From the Documerica Project, The Environmental Protection Agency’s Program to Photographically Document Subjects of Environmental Concern, 1972-1977 @1972, Danny Lyon.

Figure 7 :

  1. Bob Smith, Central Expressway leading South into Town, mai 1972, From the Documerica Project, The Environmental Protection Agency’s Program to Photographically Document Subjects of Environmental Concern, 1972-1977 @1972, Bob Smith.
  2. Cornelius M. Keyes, View of Phoenix’s Urban Sprawl from 4000 Ft. South Mountain in Background, juin 1972, From the Documerica Project, The Environmental Protection Agency’s Program to Photographically Document Subjects of Environmental Concern, 1972-1977 @1972, Cornelius M. Keyes.