Two Latin girls pose in front of a wall of graffiti in Lynch Park, in Brooklyn, New York, 1974.
Two Latin girls pose in front of a wall of graffiti in Lynch Park, in Brooklyn, New York, 1974.Danny Lyon—The National Archives
Two Latin girls pose in front of a wall of graffiti in Lynch Park, in Brooklyn, New York, 1974.
Water cooling towers of the John Amos Power Plant loom over Poca, WV, 1973.
Housing adjacent to U.S. Steel plant, Birmingham, Alabama, 1972.
Thunderbird display in the Spanish speaking Second Ward. El Paso, Texas, 1972.
Young woman watches as her car goes through testing at an auto emission inspection station in Downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, 1975.
Breezy Point, Long Island, 1973.
Religious fervor is mirrored in the face of a Black Muslim woman listening to Elijah Muhammad deliver his annual Savior's Day message in Chicago, Illinois, 1974.
Robert Johnson, 18, sits on a pool table in a beer joint in Clothier, West Virginia, 1974.
Gasoline stations abandoned during the fuel crisis in winter of 1973-74 were sometimes used for other purposes. Potlatch, Washington, 1974.
Abandoned automobiles and other debris clutter an acid water and oil filled five acre pond near Ogden, Utah, 1974.
Mary Workman holds a jar of undrinkable water that comes from her well, near Stuebenville, Ohio, 1973.
Taking shelter during a dust storm, Arizona, 1972.
Country’s fuel shortage led to problems for motorists in finding gas as well as paying much more of it, and resulted in theft from cars left unprotected.
Children play in yard of Ruston home, while Tacoma smelter stack showers area with arsenic and lead residue. Washington State, 1972.
Looking out at Main Street in Eastport. Maine, 1973.
At Bahia Honda State Park, on Bahia Honda Key, Florida, 1973.
Two Latin girls pose in front of a wall of graffiti in Lynch Park, in Brooklyn, New York, 1974.
Danny Lyon—The National Archives
1 of 16

Bellbottoms, Smog and Afros: Documerica Searches for the Seventies

Mar 05, 2013

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has always had an awkward role in the federal government. Created much later than other executive departments — in 1970, by a grudging President Richard Nixon — the EPA isn't even in the official Cabinet. Its official mission is to "protect human health and the environment," and since business activity — through pollution and energy and resource use — tends to be the biggest threat to health and the environment, the EPA often finds itself in the crosshairs of conservative critics, while environmentalists often complain the agency does too little to protect the planet. There may not be a more thankless job in the federal government than EPA Administrator.

But the EPA has changed the country — and it's done so for the better. When the EPA was created at the dawn of the 1970s, the U.S. was an ecological mess. Poisoned smog cloaked cities like Los Angeles and New York. Rivers were full of industrial waste — TIME described Ohio's highly flammable Cuyahoga as the river that "oozes rather than flows." Monsters cars guzzled gas and expelled lead fumes.

That's the country that the Searching for the Seventies: Documerica Photography Project captures. Documerica was created by the EPA as an effort to document the country's environmental crisis — the project draws from more than 20,000 images in the National Archives — and it does so with verve. The water coolers of a power plant, belching steam, loom over the backyard of a house in West Virginia. Old refrigerators litter the land around the Queens neighborhood of Breezy Point — later destroyed by superstorm Sandy — in New York. Gasoline stations pumped dry by the fuel crisis sit tagged by graffiti. These are images from an America that seems further away from us than it really is, one that's grimier and poorer. The sweat and the dirt and even the air is visible.

But these images throb with life. The EPA didn't set out to make art — that's not exactly in the agency's mission statement — but the photographers did just that, capturing ordinary Americans in the midst of a transitory era, as the industrial and the rural gave way to the country we know today. In many ways that country is a better one, a cleaner one — thanks in no small part to the work of the EPA. But there's a startling beauty to the 1970s — bad haircuts and fashion aside — that's been lost in the decades since. Thanks to Documerica — and the EPA — at least we have these memories.

'Searching for the Seventies: The Documerica Photo Project' opens March 8 at the Lawrence F. O'Brien Gallery of the National Archive Building in Washington D.C. A book featuring the work is also available from D. Giles Ltd.

Bryan Walsh is a senior editor at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME

TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.