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October 2013

Documerica

In 1973 ecologist and writer Anne LaBastille photographed the Adirondacks as part of an Environmental Protection Agency project, chronicling the human imprint on the park’s landscape. What’s changed four decades later?

Anne LaBastille with her dog Pitzi, in 1973. She wrote captions for the photos she provided to EPA’s Documerica project. This one is cataloged: “Names and dates are carved in a tree along a trail to Snowy Mountain near Indian Lake.”

Shortly after it was established, the Environmental Protection Agency hired 81 freelance photographers across the United States to document what administrator William Ruckelshaus called “smell, touch and feel kind of pollution.” Last year the National Archives digitized more than 15,000 slides and put them online as “Searching for the Seventies: The Documerica Photography Project.”

Ecologist and writer Anne LaBastille contributed 370 images of the Adirondacks. A handful depicted graffiti carved into a beech tree, bears foraging at a garbage dump, eroded hiking trails and “unaesthetic” signs—quaint scenes compared to images of urban smog and curdled industrial rivers. The Adi­rondacks of 1973 was an oasis from most of the visible environmental problems of the day.

LaBastille (1933–2011) lived in Big Moose and traveled around the Adirondack Park. She took indifferent pictures of lily pads, streams, shorelines, wildflowers. Many of the nature shots are dark and only vaguely focused and captioned. Photography was not her strong suit. This was three years before she would publish Woodswoman, the first in a series of memoirs describing a supposedly solitary life in a cabin by a remote Adirondack lake. In a region where a lot of people have legitimate woodcraft cred, it’s still a bit of a pastime to dismiss the books as fiction. But the idea of a newly divorced woman alone in wilderness, reinventing her life, found an eager audience outside the Adirondacks.

So it’s surprising that LaBastille’s best photos are of people: people fishing, hiking and camping, of course, but also people in town, eating ice cream, driving steel-bumpered cars, watching parades—Adirondackers at leisure. There’s an endearing quality to these shots. LaBastille’s perspective is often from behind or at a distance. She seems to revert to her training as a field biologist observing behavior, but she is the shy animal here.

In the end, these pictures might say as much about LaBastille as they do about the Adirondacks of the 1970s. In pink lipstick, blonde pigtails and bikinis, she used the Brigitte-Bardot-goes-camping look to jarring advantage. She frequently turned her Nikkormat on herself, taking soft-focus selfies in heavy hiking boots. But she was nervous when others did, once demanding that a Twitchell Lake neighbor who might have caught her on film at a public boat dock hand over his camera.

In 1973 Anne was 40 years old. The Adirondack Park was only twice that age. Another 40 years later she has passed away, but this landscape has not changed much, to the eye at least. Which is still what makes it remarkable.

 

1973: “Unaesthetic sign at the edge of Route 73. Because the sign is located on private property it does not have to conform to the Adirondack forest preserve sign law.”

2013: Aesthetic taste aside, LaBastille misunderstood the new Adirondack Park Agency’s rules. The Michauds actually went to some expense to change their sign to brown and yellow in an attempt to comply with guidelines, according to their daughter.

 


1973: “Child pokes his finger at a stuffed bear in the Enchanted Forest.”

2013: The Old Forge theme park is still popular, but water slides now overshadow some of the simpler attractions.

 

1973: “U.S. Forest Service district ranger from Lowville talks things over with forest ranger at Stillwater [Reservoir].”

2013: Actually, they’re New York State Department of Environmental Conservation forest rangers. Bob Bailey (left) covered Lowville, and Terry Perkins was stationed at Stillwater. Both are now retired and live in the North Country.

 


1973: “Fisherman displays catch of native brook trout.”

2013: Since the passage of Clean Air Act amendments in 1990, acid rain has been reduced and brook trout are rebounding in size and number.

 

1973: “Young campers at a state lean-to cook their breakfast beside Lake Tear of the Clouds.”

2013: Camping is no longer permitted above 4,000 feet and lean-tos have been removed. Campfires are also prohibited in the eastern High Peaks.

 

1973: “Hunters warm up with a cup of hot coffee at a Stillwater Road public campsite.”

2013: The number of hunters has declined statewide since 1973 but hunting remains a fall Adirondack tradition. Blaze orange has replaced red safety clothing.

 

1973: “Typical hot dog stand at Lake George.”

2013: This window is now part of S. J. Garcia’s Mexican restaurant, but it still serves hot dogs and ice cream to summer visitors on Canada Street.

 

1973: “Ilmenite ore is mined with massive equipment which has resulted in a hole more than 3,000 feet long, 1,500 feet wide.”

2013: The Tahawus mine is still owned by NL Industries, and ample ore reserves remain in the ground, but mining ceased in the early 1980s as de­mand and other factors changed. The pit is now filled with water.

 

1973: “Lumberjack from Tupper Lake cutting logs into eight foot sections for loading. He is working on International Paper Company land near Big Moose.”

2013: IP retains a mill in Ticonderoga but sold off its Adirondack landholdings in 2006. This tract is now owned by Lyme Timber and is still logged.

 

1973: “Backpacking church group at the summit of Mount Marcy, highest peak in New York State.”

2013: A summit steward program implemented in 1989 teaches hikers to avoid trampling alpine plants, and vegetation has since reclaimed some of Marcy’s bare rock. Day-hiking groups are now limited to 15 people.

More Documerica images can be found online at Flickr or Wikimedia Commons, or on the National Archives website.



Searching for the Seventies


More Anne LaBastille Documerica Photos

Hunters load an outboard motorboat behind their station wagon at the Stillwater Reservoir and public boat landing.

This is just classic.



Motorcyclists traveling through Adirondack Forest Preserve near Inlet, New York, on Route #28.

Four years after the release of Easy Rider.



Typical tourist-type shop, in Souvenir Village, at Old Forge.

This façade is gone, and Adirondack ticky-tacky in general has been toned down. But Old Forge’s main drag still caters to tourists, evidenced by the bank to the right, which is now a “Life is Good” shop.



Bicycling couple stop during their tour of Fourth Lake.

I love the stalk-y feel of this shot. Though she was a skilled self-promoter, LaBastille could be shy and was notoriously wary of having her own picture taken.



Traffic jam on a summer weekend at Lake George.

Steel bumpers aside, the summer scene on Canada Street is still familiar.



Watching black bears is a favorite summer evening attraction at dumps.

This activity came to an end in the 1990s with the capping of town dumps. Trash is now compacted and transported to centralized landfills that are lined to minimize groundwater leakage.



Family fishing from dock at Cascade [Lake] near Lake Placid.

Round whitefish still persist in the Cascade Lakes, in Keene, but the statewide population is endangered. This beautiful spot still exemplifies the Adirondack one-two punch of mountains and lakes.



Row of motels at Lake George village, New York, and plethora of signs creates a non-rustic scene in the Adirondack Forest Preserve.

LaBastille often incorrectly captioned any Adirondack scene as set in the “Adirondack Forest Preserve.” Of course, Forest Preserve represents undeveloped state land only. In any case, Lake George retains much of what is now considered vintage charm.



Summary

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