America was not nearly as beautiful before the advent of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Viewof Nyfrom Nj
Manhattan as seen from New Jersey, March 1973.

In January 1972, thirteen months after the launch of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the fledgling federal agency hired dozens of freelance photographers to document “the environmental happenings” in the country at that time. Over the course of the next six years, the photographers contributed tens of thousands of images to the project, known as Documerica. The pictures—many now available at the National Archives Web site and on Flickr—illustrate the ravages of industrial pollution, which had led the American public to clamor for federal environmental legislation.

Documerica was the brainchild of the EPA's Gifford D. Hampshire, who argued that “future Americans should understand our successes and failures.” And thanks to the EPA and the environmental laws and regulations implemented (mostly) in the 1970s, there are now far fewer highly visible examples of industrial pollution. In fact, if you believe the GOP, the EPA has been so successful that we should shut it down, because all the environmental threats have been addressed already. Never mind that America’s current environmental challenges—though often not as tangible—are no less of a threat.

Credit for the rediscovery of the Documerica collection goes to Jerry Simmons, an archives specialist at the National Archives and Records Administration, who stumbled on the photos during a catalog update.