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Project Documerica and Pre-Carbon Nostalgia in the 1970s

Fri, March 31, 8:30 to 10:00am, The Drake Hotel, Superior


This paper uses “Project Documerica,” the EPA’s official documentary photography project from 1971-77, to examine the state’s representation of oil during the 1970s energy crisis. Documerica images, taken by over 70 photographers working on short-term contracts, were intended to support the EPA by recording America’s environmental crisis in order to create a “visual baseline” from which to judge the agency’s success in addressing the crisis over time. As a tool of public education, Documerica reframed the narrative of postwar modernity as a story of decline while reassuring viewers that the state could manage the crisis and foster a new era of social and environmental progress. Its images often featured energy extraction and production infrastructures as major sources of pollution and aesthetic blight.

Photographer John Messina’s assignment on a Louisiana fishing community illustrates Documerica’s counterproductive approach to oil within its larger reframing of US modernity. Whereas scholars have highlighted the public’s apocalyptic, conspiratorial, and apathetic responses to the energy crisis, Messina’s series exhibits a nostalgic response to the complex interconnections between oil, environmental crisis, and social life. His framing of oil infrastructures as manageable and external threats to the authentic way of life of fishing families registers some of the consequences of oil dependence but refuses to acknowledge its centrality to US society. Messina’s compositions always present oil as fundamentally alien to the community that it threatens, which is warmly portrayed as a source of national identity. Such nostalgia for rural and pre-carbon pasts is evident throughout the Documerica project, illustrating the conceptual difficulties that environmentalist photographers and bureaucrats faced in conceptualizing an environmental politics that could confront the profound social transformations that had been built on the global extraction, circulation, and consumption of oil and its products in the mid-20th century.