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Friday 21 June 2013 Images that capture the spirit of a decade

Modern life can be frustrating: despite my best efforts, my children still know more about my phone than I do. I mourn the absence of those instruction booklets that used to come with any new electrical gadget, and don’t let’s start on built-in obsolescence...

But leafing through our book Searching for the Seventies: The DOCUMERICA Photography Project, I felt a wave of gratitude for the passing years. No longer do I have to wear the ill-fitting, unstylish garb of my youth – the checked shirts with snap fasteners, big flares, itchy roll-neck jumpers. The seventies sits unattractively between the stylish sixties and the affluent eighties – in Britain, it was a time of power cuts, facial hair, hard hats and bad clothing. The erratic electricity supply made an adventure of those wintry nights lit by candles and huddled around the fire, but an adventure in awful clothes.

In Washington DC, the National Archives’ DOCUMERICA exhibition (on which the book is based) runs until 8th September. It displays some of the Archives’ extensive collection of photos from the DOCUMERICA project launched in 1971 by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). DOCUMERICA grew out of the dawning environmental conscience of the nation, and was inspired by a similar government-funded photo project in the thirties which recorded the effects of the depression. The wider brief given to DOCUMERICA photographers enabled them to capture images of the street life and fashion of this singular decade, as well as scenes of damage wrought by modern life.
The photos present a whole range of images; they include the chilled-out hitchhiker on route 66 with his flower-patched jeans and his fluffy dog (name: Tripper); the schoolboy (longish hair, purple flairs, mustard t-shirt) walking home past the derelict houses in his neighbourhood. They include shiny-white paved gardens in suburban Staten Island with their seahorse-adorned fountains and children cooling off with fire hydrant water on Chicago’s South Side. The flexible brief helps date the images – the clothing, hair-styles, moustaches and side-burns fix the photos in time, as does the image of the new freeway into downtown Texas – it’s largely empty. These photos evoke a time when a mobile was something that hung from your ceiling with pictures attached, not something with which you could photograph your own cat. But some of the photos– images of derelict high-rises with abandoned white goods on scrubland, the car dump, the jobless man sitting on the windowsill of an empty building in Chicago - could have been taken this year.

Searching for the Seventies Searching for the Seventies The DOCUMERICA Photography Project
Bruce I. Bustard. Foreword by William D. Ruckelshaus

Capturing the spirit of a decade

Searching for the Seventies opens this week

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