As a child of the 1980s, the 1970s have always been a mysterious decade to me. So, I get the appeal of the exhibition “Searching for the Seventies” now on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC, through September 8.
“Searching for the Seventies” highlights the photographs of the Documerica project, a documentary project started by the Environmental Protection Agency to record environmental issues, EPA activities and everyday life in the 1970s. Dozens of photographers traveled the country taking thousands of photographs in cities and in the country of people working, playing, and living in a variety of different ways.
With 40 years of distance on many of these photographs, you can really see the dramatic changes that have occurred. This is especially true when you look at your local community.
In my area, I was first taken aback by images of the Statue of Liberty surrounded by a massive oil slick and the New York City skyline contrasted with garbage at an illegal dump. Then, I noticed the images of graffiti riddled subway cars on the very subway lines that stop near the National Archives at New York City. As a lifelong resident of northern New Jersey and daily commuter to New York City, these images seem like another world.
If you can see past the garbage and the graffiti (and the dated hairstyles, fashion, etc), you can see a lot of familiar sites. The cars may be a bit boxier, but the traffic getting around New York City looks just as congested. The streets are just as full of workers and residents. The parks are filled with tourists and children playing. The bridges and tunnels with their interchanges and ramps look just as complicated from the air as they feel from the street.
The photos from Project Documerica help make the 1970s a bit less mysterious. They are a great tool for marking the continuities and the changes that have occurred in the last 40 years.
Nearly 16,000 DOCUMERICA images have been digitized by the National Archives and are available online by location, topic, and photographer. You can explore a selection of these photographs, other documents, and educational activities about the 1970s on a special DocsTeach page. Or you can follow Searching for the Seventies on Tumblr.