DOCUMERICA Photographer Continues to Enjoy Exposure from NARA Collection

Today’s post comes from Larry Shockley, an archives specialist at the National Archives at College Park, MD. 

In 1972 David Hiser was one of several photographers chosen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to document locations in the United States as part of the DOCUMERICA Project. Over 460 of Hiser’s photos can now be found in the National Archives Catalog.  

When I contacted Hiser to see what he is doing now, he agreed to an interview but told me that his preferred way of responding to my questions was to record his answers into his iPhone and then email me the file. This unorthodox approach allowed me to obtain both a treasure trove of information and a valuable oral history. It is pleasing to note that he is just as passionate about photography today as he was in 1972.

Today Hiser spends his time as a photojournalist and digital photo instructor working from his home studio in Aspen, Colorado. 

Hiser’s journey as a photographer began when he moved to Aspen at age 25. After his photographs of skiers got him some local attention, he was hired first by local newspapers and then, after about three years, by National Geographic. 

During his tenure as a photographer for National Geographic, Hiser had about 66 assignments, 20 stories, and at least one cover. When Hiser was working for National Geographic, a public information officer for the Environmental Protection Agency by the name of Giff Hampshire created a project that endeavored to document areas of environmental concern. 

Project DOCUMERICA began with approximately 120 photographers, many of whom were freelancers suggested by National Geographic’s Director of Photography Robert Gilka. Gilka gave Hampshire advice on how to structure the logistics of handling multiple photographers and also gave him his list of freelancers, one of whom was David Hiser.

During his tenure with the EPA, Hiser didn’t meet any of the other photographers. It was a solo effort, and he used the same caption book to record DOCUMERICA photo descriptions that he was using for his National Geographic photos.

He also filed the images in the same way as he had filed his National Geographic photos, and although he did get occasional reports back on how DOCUMERICA was doing, he had very little input in the selection and editing of the images. Despite his frustration with these logistical issues, Hiser found there to be a lot less pressure to work for the EPA because with National Geographic’s higher pay came much higher expectations.

Hiser did five assignments for DOCUMERICA, with three being his idea:

1. Earthships and Beer Can Houses in New Mexico

Hiser came up with the idea to document “beer can houses” and what later became known as “Earthships” while he was hiking. He worked with Michael Reynolds, the inventor of the Earthship, who built structures with beer cans, abandoned tires, etc. The buildings were meant to exist off the grid and were part of the “New Age Scene” in Taos, New Mexico.

2. Canyonlands National Park  

The 337,598 acres of Canyonland National Park was another area where Hiser enjoyed hiking and exploring.

3. Rifle, Colorado

Hiser lived just 50 miles from Rifle, Colorado, and was inspired to do a documentary on the life of the people there. It was an old-fashioned ranching town he really enjoyed.

4. Oil Spill and Helicopter Crash on San Juan River  

Hiser was assigned to cover on oil spill in the San Juan river and narrowly missed getting on a helicopter that crashed and disintegrated.

5. Arches National Park

Hiser really enjoyed covering Arches National Park as it required him to rappel into canyons and backpack into remote areas. Being able to do this kind of work is one of the reasons he moved to Aspen.

When asked what the greatest challenge to this type of work was, Hiser replied that there were frustrations with the process. “You would shoot the film, then mail it off and not get to edit it yourself. Because of this you might not hear for weeks, if at all, what kind of results you have. Now of course a photographer can edit the film themselves digitally.”

After Hiser worked with DOCUMERICA, the EPA used one of his photos as an “environmental consciousness thing,” but not much happened with them afterwards. Hiser states that he is unaware of the photos being used much outside of the National Archives; he was therefore pleased to find them on Flickr and the National Archives Catalog. His main frustration with his collection on Flickr is that you will find his images “bunched in with other people, and you cannot see the images via assignment because they are not organized that way.” 

In 2013, Hiser’s work, along with other DOCUMERICA photographers, was featured in the National Archives exhibit Searching for the Seventies: The DOCUMERICA Photography Project.

If you would like to learn more about David Hiser’s work, you can find his images in the National Archives Catalog, Flickr, Getty Images, and the Annenberg Space for Photography. Those who are interested in his photographs of his good friend Hunter S. Thompson may contact the Fat City Gallery.

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