Don’t let the soft, sepia tones fool you. The United States used to be dangerously polluted.
Before President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the environment and its well-being was not a federal priority.
In the early 1970s, the EPA launched the “ The Documerica Project,” which leveraged 100 freelance photographers to document what the US looked like. By 1974, there were of 81,000 photos. The National Archives digitized nearly 16,000 and made them available online.
Many of the photos were taken before water and air pollution were fully regulated. The Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, and the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972.
Baltimore, Birmingham, Cleveland, Delaware, Denver, Kansas, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco all feature here, in shots filled with smoke, smog, acid, oil, rubbish, and sewage.
None of the 35 photos are pretty (other than the film-photo haze), but it’s worth remembering what US cities used to be like before we cared what we put into the air, soil, and water.