Documerica in Focus: Gary Truman

“You’re capturing a slice of history, every time that shutter closes,” says Gary as our phone call comes to an end.

Documerica is full of stories; after all that was its intent. In my incredible opportunity to speak with some who were involved, I’m finding out a few stories behind the stories and that’s where the fun is.

Gary Truman was one of several graduate students who accompanied Flip Schulke to the quaint, German town of New Ulm, Minnesota in 1975. Flip knew Gifford Hampshire who was the life, energy, and vision behind Documerica. One of Flip’s contributions for the project was to head back and cover the life and environment; as Gary puts it, “in a town that adopted him.”

Documerica photo by Gary TrumanTaking his advanced students, some like Gary who were already working professionally, Flip asked for their ideas to cover this community. What resulted was a week of moments in a small American town; its births, its deaths, its churches and schools, its streets and its faces. Hundreds of photographs forever captured a slice of New Ulm’s history.

I mentioned to Gary that we’ve gotten questions about State of the Environment, “Can it really match up to Documerica?” Given that Documerica was often times so up close and personal. State of the Environment by name more easily evokes the idea that we’re looking for photos of landscapes, but it’s about everyday life too. That is the reality of how we’re interacting and living within our environment. So I asked, “Did you consider the environment during your work there?”

“The life there was absolutely about the environment. New Ulm could not have been the same town surrounded by mountains, or coal mines. The older couple I photographed, with their hybrid stove, you wouldn’t see that today. That’s a picture of history, the reality of their environment at the time.”

Growing up in West Virginia, he watched a nearby river go from “a place I wouldn’t enter unless it was to pull a friend out, with mutated and dead fish, to a clean place where you can now catch small mouth bass.”

Sometimes the connection isn’t obvious, the story of change isn’t as easy to see without a ‘then’ and ‘now.’ We took a moment to reflect on the potential power that State of the Environment holds.

“Yeah, there’s work to be done,” he says, “but boy we’ve come a long way.”

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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