From 1971 to 1977 the Environmental Protection Agency hired freelance photographers for a project called “Documerica.” The goal was to capture photographs relating to the environment, including everyday life. More than 15,000 photos from the project now reside in the National Archives.
David Hiser was one of the photographers the EPA hired, recommended by the director of photography at National Geographic, where Hiser had done some work. His photographic career started at a newspaper in Aspen, Colorado.
“In those days you didn’t go to school to become a photojournalist," he told CNN in 2012. "You got on with a small newspaper and sort of went from there."
Aspen, even in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, had plenty of hustle and bustle – the comings and goings of celebrities, nightlife and sporting events. Hiser considers it "a very good grounding as a journalist to work there for two years.”
Hiser said the Documerica project was similar to the work he did for National Geographic – "documentary work with a lot of emphasis on veracity and truth and doing a good job on things.”
Hiser’s assignments for Documerica led him away from Aspen to a ranching town in Colorado, and then the Canyon Lands area of Utah – areas that piqued his photographic interest. Then a house project near Taos, New Mexico, caught his eye.
“That was a pretty unusual subject,” he said of the can-constructed home. Hiser said he approached the job much as he would a National Geographic assignment, except that he only had around a week instead of the month or more the magazine would have granted him.
The construction used reclaimed steel soda and beer cans in conjunction with adobe and concrete to form the structure of the house. The idea was the brainchild of Michael Reynolds, who continues to work on alternative and sustainable building techniques through Earthship Biotecture.
”I think that the reason it works there is that it was a real stronghold of the alternative lifestyle … a real magnet for young people,” Hiser said.
Hiser's work for National Geographic prepared him well for the Documerica project, he added.
“You feel a great pressure to excel. I never worked as hard as I did at that time. You’re kinda the tip of the spear. There’s this whole organization behind you waiting for your pictures and to evaluate them and wanting to carry them forth. And at least at that time they were preparing six to seven stories for every five that ran in the magazine. So even when you got an assignment, it wasn’t a sure thing that a story was going to happen.”
Similarly, the EPA's Documerica era concluded, and Hiser’s photos never gained much exposure.
“I had no illusions that too many people were going to see what I was doing when I was working for Documerica, and that proved to be true. The one comfort was that the pictures went into the national archives, so maybe in another 40 or 50 years they’ll be appreciated a little bit more," he said. "That’s every documentary photographer or filmmakers dream, is that their work is going to last a little bit longer than the first showing.”
- Cody McCloy, CNN