It gets harder to find worthy examples of bearded and mustachioed Americans in our holdings after the first decades of the 20th century, when facial hair went out of fashion. Fortunately for us, we can look into a decade known for groovy facial hair: the 1970s.
This is one of our most popular images, though I wonder if it’s because of the puppy and the patchwork pants rather than the scraggly goatee. The original caption identifies the man as a hitchhiker on Route 66. He certainly seems pretty relaxed despite standing barefoot on rocks that I presume are hot from the Arizona sun.
This photograph is unusual for more reasons than its retro facial hair. It was taken by Charles O’Rear, who was a photographer in the DOCUMERICA project launched by the new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1971. Photographers were assigned by geographic region to document what they saw destroying America’s landscape and natural resources: mining, air pollution, garbage.
Charles O’Rear, however, had a slightly more cheerful assignment. At one point during his time as a contributing photographer, he was sent to the healthiest place in America at that time: southeastern Nebraska. His work there documents an area that had the lowest death rates for American white males.
O’Rear went on to work as a photographer for National Geographic for 25 years. But you might recognize one of his most photographs from your PC. O’Rear took “Bliss” the iconic desktop background for Microsoft Windows.
Although that photograph is not in our holdings, we have more than 20,000 images taken by DOCUMERICA photographers. The National Archives has just posted a new series of photographs on Flickr taken by O’Rear. Due to the size of his DOCUMERICA collection, there are three geographical sets. This album contains photographs taken in California, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico from 1972 to 1975, including the photograph of our goateed hitchhiker above.
Although the EPA closed the project in 1978, it remains relevant. Recently the National Archives co-sponsored the Document Your Environment contest with the EPA to encourage young people to learn about these records and create records of their own.
You can read more about the DOCUMERICA photographers and their work in “DOCUMERICA: Crisis and Cure in the 1970s” from Prologue magazine.