Forty Years of Cleaning Up America: Honoring Earth Day with a Look at Photographs from Project DOCUMERICA

This guest blog post was written by NARA Archives Specialist Jerry Simmons.

Earth Day turns 40 today!  To mark this great, green event, I wanted to highlight the Environmental Protection Agency’s Project DOCUMERICA collection held in the Still Pictures branch of the National Archives at College Park.  Though none of these images depict actual Earth Day events, they do show Americans working together to clean up the country in the early 1970s.  Here are a few of my favorite Project DOCUMERICA “cleanup” photographs for comment and discussion.

First on the list is “Roadside Trash Pickup, May 1972,” a photograph taken by Colorado photographer Bill Gillette.  In the foreground a woman is picking up what appears to be common household trash on a roadside near Vail, Colorado.  What strikes me about this image is that some passerby thought dumping this amount of trash in such a picturesque setting was acceptable.  Because our eyes are gripped by the trash in the foreground, we don’t immediately notice the beautiful snow-capped Rocky Mountains in the background.  My initial reaction is one of disgust, but then hope.

Roadside Trash Pick-Up
Roadside Trash Pick-Up (ARC Identifier 552947 / Local Identifier 412-DA-10462)

My second image is one by DOCUMERICA photographer Bruce McAllister.

Students from Peoria Elementary School
Students from Peoria Elementary School (ARC Identifier 544827 / Local Identifier 412-DA-2334)

Offering hope for the green movement, this photograph by Bruce McAllister shows school kids from Peoria Elementary School in Aurora, Colorado, collecting used milk cartons for reprocessing.

And this one, also by Bruce McAllister, features a third grade student at the Bryant Webster School, involved in an environmental awareness class.  I wonder if the Colorado schools still feature this subject in the curriculum?

Environmental Awareness
Environmental Awareness (ARC Identifier 545307 / Local Identifier 412-DA-2814)

And in this photograph, the theme continues … American youth taking charge in the effort to preserve our natural resources.  Like the woman in Vail, Colorado, above, these school kids fill their trash bags with litter, picked up near Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Young People Filling Bags with Litter
Young People Filling Bags with Litter (ARC Identifier 552948 / Local Identifier 412-DA-10463)

I’m interested to hear what you have to say about these photos!  I think the work these kids did back in the early 1970s is simply inspirational and I hope today’s youth will somehow be inspired to work for a cleaner, greener America.

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