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Documenting America's Environments: Then And Now

Jun 1, 2013
Originally published on June 1, 2013 12:26 pm

In 1971, when the Environmental Protection Agency was in its early days, someone at the agency got the idea to send nearly 100 freelance photographers around America to document the country. These weren't postcard shots, but pictures of street corners, freight yards, parking lots, alleyways — wherever people were working and living. It was called Documerica, and it went on for seven years.

A young photographer, Michael Philip Manheim, joined the Documerica project in 1973. His assignment was to take a good look at the noise pollution in Boston from Logan International Airport.

Forty years later, he went back to East Boston to take photos for the EPA's next generation of the project, State of the Environment. Manheim joins Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon to talk about the project then, and now.


Interview Highlights

On photographing East Boston in 1973

"The people who lived ... in the vicinity ... were having a very, very big problem. The airport grew and grew and grew, and needed more and more land, and ... the people ... were so hurt by the noise pollution because at that point, the airplanes would land and take off right over their street. ... I documented cracks in walls in the homes, people with severe hearing problems. It just went on and on and on."

On going back to East Boston in 2012

"There is one house left out of this huge neighborhood, and what you see there are, well, the trees, some of the street signs and warehouses that are connected with either the airport or other serviced industries ... the neighborhood was decimated."

On how photography has changed since Documerica

"We were shooting slides — chromes. So it's easier to do these things [now], but you still need the eye, you need the reflexes, you really have to have a compositional sense. So, the expression, 'Everyone is a photographer,' well, it does take a professional. I have to admit."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In 1971, when the Environmental Protection Agency was in its early days, somebody in the agency got the idea to send nearly 100 freelance photographers out around America - get them to document the country. Not postcard shots but pictures of street corners, freight yards, parking lots, alleyways, wherever people were working and living. It was called the Documerica project and it went on for seven years. A young photographer named Michael Philip Manheim joined the Documerica project in 1973. And his assignment was to take a good look at the noise pollution in Boston from Logan Airport. Forty years later, he went back to East Boston to take photos for the next generation project launched by the EPA called State of the Environment. Michael Philip Manheim joins us now from member station WBUR in Boston. Thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL PHILIP MANHEIM: Oh, my pleasure, Scott. Good to be with you.

SIMON: And why the neighborhoods around Logan? What was going on then?

MANHEIM: The people who lived on or in the vicinity of Neptune Road were having a very, very big problem. The airport grew and grew and grew, and needed more and more land. And the people on Neptune Road were so hurt by the noise pollution because at that point the airplanes would land and take off right over their street often enough that there was extensive noise pollution. And I have this one picture - I think you probably saw it - of the teenagers on the overpass, and some of them are not even paying attention to the airplane overhead, and it could be that some of them are now hearing impaired in this photograph.

SIMON: I mean, you take a look at some of your photographs and the planes are astonishingly close. I mean, it feels that you can almost reach up and hold onto one of the wheels.

MANHEIM: And I documented cracks in walls in the homes, people with severe hearing problems. It just went on and on and on.

SIMON: What did you find when you went back?

MANHEIM: There's one house left out of this huge neighborhood. And what you see there are, well, the trees, some of the street signs, and warehouses that are connected with either the airport or other service industries.

SIMON: So, what was once a neighborhood is now industrial land it sounds like.

MANHEIM: Yeah, the neighborhood was decimated.

SIMON: Photographic equipment has changed a great deal in 40 years, hasn't it?

MANHEIM: Oh yes.

SIMON: I just wonder if you have any thoughts about that, seeing the kind of presence of film versus what digital does nowadays.

MANHEIM: We were shooting slides, chromes. So, it's easier to do these things, but you still need the eye, you need the reflexes, you really have to have a compositional sense. So, the expression is everyone is a photographer. Well, it does take a professional. I have to admit.

SIMON: Michael Philip Manheim, the photographer, joining us from member station WBUR in Boston. Thanks so much for being with us.

MANHEIM: Oh, my pleasure, Scott. Good talking with you.

SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.