Documerica: A Unique Insight into 1970s America

documerica martin joubert

In the early to mid-1970s, the United States Environmental Protection Agency sponsored Documerica – a program to “photographically document subjects of environmental concern”. The program spanned 1972-1977 and included images from 70 photographers including Boyd Norton, Danny Lyon, Yoichi Okamoto and John H. White. The brief was interpreted in a manner of ways by all photographers, resulting in a collection of extremely diverse images that paint a vivid picture of the USA at a time of heightened social, political and cultural change.

Martin Joubert, an art director from Paris, stumbled across the images by accident and has since turned them into four printed issues, each one focusing one photographer each: John H. White, Tom Hubbard, Danny Lyon and Flip Schulke. We sat down with Joubert to find out more about the project, the images and his future plans.

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Where did you find these images?

I was working on a book about NASA’s Apollo space program, and I found out NASA and some other U.S. administrations have many common rights accounts or dedicated websites. I was going from one account to another and found The U.S. National Archives account. I’m always looking for NASA related pictures (I’m kind of a space nerd) but when I found the Documerica Archive (completely by accident) I said to myself: “You need to do something with this.” It was so ‘70s, a real link to the past.

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Were you surprised at the kind of images you found?

The content was so new and refreshing for me. As a European it was an unexpected chance to discover such different American ways of life. There are so many in the USA in fact. Every part of this country is so different; when you go from El Paso, to Florida, to NYC, to Detroit, to Hawaii you travel a lot in front of your computer.

I really like archived photographs (mostly from after WW2) because they show a world I can’t discover anymore. The world changes so fast now but back in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, everything looks nicer and slower. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not nostalgic for these days, it’s just everything looks more colourful, less stressful. I have a certain feeling of melancholy for the “happy time” spirit.

documerica child on sofa

How did you select which images went into Documerica?

I wanted everything to feel coherent and not just like photographs next to other photographs with no link. I wanted to tell a story. But selecting the pictures was the biggest deal…when you have 500 photos in a series and you can only choose 50/60 you must make some tough choices.

I didn’t want to let this beautiful project from another time to disappear but, yes, the most important thing for me was to show how beautiful everything/everyone is. We need more love in this world.

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Have you got plans to continue the project?

A friend of mine is starting a publication house so if she can help me on this why not. Printing costs so much money, and because I don’t have a publisher I don’t have the money to print everything I do. But I want to finish all the issues even if it’s only digital, I don’t like to let projects die.

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Discover more of Martin Joubert’s work on Behance.


Interview by Angharad Jones. Images courtesy of Martin Joubert

Sarah Atkinson

Sarah Atkinson

Writer and expert