Documerica in Focus: Charles “Chuck” O’Rear

By Jeanethe Falvey

He set an older camera on the table so I would recognize him. In a quaint coffee shop in St. Helena, California, I finally had a chance to sit down with Chuck and meet him in person.

While he is the likely front-runner with the most photographs in the final Documerica collection, his images are not yet in Flickr. Only about 4,000 have been scanned into the National Archives Flickr account, but over 15,000 images actually exist and are available in NARA’s online Archival Research Catalog. It requires patience, but searching by Documerica photographer, state, or environmental topic is worth the digging.

I asked him how he took this photo, a favorite that I found:

Crop dusting near Calipatria in the Imperial Valley, 5/1972 by Charles O'Rear.

Crop dusting near Calipatria in the Imperial Valley, 5/1972 by Charles O'Rear.

How quickly did he have to duck and cover? No tripod, he confirmed. His memory of that exact photo was a little foggy, fair enough, but he said he was highly doubtful that the pilot pulled up in time. With a chuckle he said he was glad he’s still around, but that dosage of pesticides was just one of those moments that comes with the territory of being a photojournalist. Taking risks is living, he says.

His Documerica assignments took him throughout California, down along the Colorado River on the Mexican side of the border, Hawaii and more. He kept coming up with ideas and Gifford Hampshire kept sending him out.

I could have sat with him for hours and just about did. It was easy to zing from topic to topic, place to place around the world. Since Documerica, he photographed for National Geographic magazine for 25 years. It was going to be a challenge to name a place he hadn’t traveled to. So I tried.

“Been to Palau?”

Colorado River on the Mexican side of the border, 5/1972 by Charles O'Rear

Colorado River on the Mexican side of the border, 5/1972 by Charles O'Rear

Shockingly, my first attempt got him, but he has been to Yap! Yap is an island stopover on route to Palau. I saw it in the dark. During a story about currencies around the world, he photographed the Yapese Rai: large stone disks that were brought back by rafts and determination from Papua New Guinea and Palau. Today, islanders and visitors use the American dollar, but Rai are still ceremoniously exchanged.

His adventures continue; he just returned from Australia and can’t wait to get back. This weekend, take a look at Chuck’s recent work. You’ll want a glass of chardonnay and a ticket to Napa.

About the author: Jeanethe Falvey writes from EPA’s Office of External Affairs and Environmental Education, as the project-lead for Pick 5 and the State of the Environment, two projects geared towards learning, sharing and gaining a greater collective connection to our environment.

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