Photographer Feature: Carol Highsmith

Capturing the beauty of America for 40 years.

Carol M. Highsmith is beginning the 40th year of the adventure of a lifetime — visually documenting America’s urban neighborhoods, small-town scenes, rural places, National Parks, vast open spaces, interiors of historic homes, festivals, and more. She is donating her life’s work, copyright and royalty-free, to the Library of Congress, where the Highsmith Collection holds more than 72,000 images. We caught up with Carol to learn more about her work, creative process, and the journey that’s taken her across the United States and back again.

Hi Carol! Tell us a little about yourself — when did you first become interested in photography and how did you get to where you are today?

Very early in my life I was introduced to cameras — as the subject, not the shooter — and learned to laugh and smile on cue for Dad. Though I hardly touched a camera myself until I was in my 30s, these times somehow, in ways I can’t explain, planted a seed about the magic of the lens.

In the 1970s I was putting myself through school by working in the broadcasting business, in sales (at the ABC-owned station in Washington). For my achievements one year, I earned a trip to what was then the bleak and mysterious Soviet Union. Before I left on the trip of a lifetime, one of my clients gave me a Pentax K1000 camera to take with me.

“This is a closed society,” he reminded me. “You’ll see things you’ll not forget, and you’ll never be back. So it’s important that you come back with more than travel tales and memories.”

I hadn’t a clue how to capture memorable images, but I quickly learned to love trying, spending most of my time looking, mouth often agape, at this strange country and stern people through the lens while clicking and clicking and clicking the shutter.

I was so entranced that, on my own dime, I extended the trip to what was then the even more secluded “Red China.” Picture me in a dusty provincial town that had rarely if ever seen a white woman, that had maybe a dozen automobiles and a thousand bicycles on its dirt streets, which women using crude brooms swept as clean as they could as I captured riveting photographs that hang on my walls to this day.

Early photo from trip to China

In short, I came home with fetching images of faraway places. And a whole new take on life. Shocking even myself as I clutched my one and only camera, I announced — to myself — that I would become a visual documentarian.

I enrolled in night school at the Corcoran School of Photography to learn, really learn, about the camera and what it takes to master it. One of my class assignments took me inside the Willard Hotel, two blocks from the White House.

It was there that my pipe dream became my calling. The once-grand “Hotel of Presidents” had declined, decayed, and sat abandoned for years. There, in effect, I taught myself photography. Rubble and rats and a staircase that just missed collapsing under me made superb subjects.

A self-portrait in the mirror of the Willard Hotel, 1980

One day, the artisan hired to restore the Willard’s grandeur came by with a mitt full of old, yellowed images. He told me his workers could find no architectural drawings of the grand old Willard and that the black-and-white photographs taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston an eon earlier, in 1901, were the only record of its halcyon days from which to work.

He had found the images at the Library of Congress. I asked him if we could go see the full collection of this Johnston, about whom I had never heard. When we arrived at the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division, we were graciously given a special tour of the Johnston Collection, which, it turned out, amounted to 50,000 images — fifty THOUSAND images — that this female pioneer had left to the Library, and therefore to the nation and the world.

I tingled and stammered at the enormity of what this remarkable, virtually forgotten woman had done. Frances would become my inspiration. There was no going back on my dream now.

That very moment, I brazenly announced to the staff at the Library of Congress that I would follow in Frances’s footsteps. I would photographically document life across America. And I, too, would give my life’s work to the place that is rightly called “America’s Memory.”

I marched out with a surge of determination and have never looked back.

Cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin with the Washington Monument, Washington, D.C.

You’ve generously donated your life’s work spanning over 40 years so far and will continue to donate all of your images to the Library of Congress for use in the Public Domain. How many have you donated so far and what inspired you to donate your work?

The Carol M. Highsmith Collection at our national library has passed 60,000 and is ever-growing. I knew from the get-go that I would be sacrificing considerable income by agreeing to give my work copyright and royalty-free. But I did so believing that it was more important to leave not just a laudable legacy but also a bank of images for ready access and free use, not just now but for generations to come.

My goal is to reach 100,000 donated images. I’m now retracing my steps in several states to document them more intensively, so who knows? Could the Highsmith Collection be the largest and most historic visual collection on earth to hit 200,000? Don’t put it past me!

Can you share more about your America project and why it’s such an important part of your work?

I’m sure you and your readers, like me, have spent many a long session marveling over a single historic image — say, of a family stiffly but proudly posing before a 19th-Century sod house. Perhaps you asked yourself a dozen questions. How did these people make it? Faced with meager food and the constant threat of attacks, how did they defend themselves?

I’m leaving behind historic time stamps, even the most mundane of which have a purpose that goes beyond art or fame or, certainly, fortune. So my quest to make sure solid and useful images of America are safely preserved, “without end date” in our treasured Library of Congress, is still my obsession.

Carol’s Aunt Kate on her 90th birthday, North Carolina

I fully realize that these days, billions of images are snapped every day, all over the world — 85% or more with cell phones. They are snapped, passed around and admired, and inevitably discarded. Even those worth saving will likely disappear into the mists of time. So a gift for posterity is important to me.

Looking at the images of Frances and Dorothea Lange, who captured the haunting image of destitute pea picker Florence Thompson and her clinging children, make the importance of tucking away a visual record clear as day. I am honored to be in their company in the free and open visual archives of the greatest body of knowledge and creativity on earth.

Proud as I am, all this is not about me; it is about our country, how it is changing, and why “Disappearing America,” as I call it, needs to be preserved, if only in the nation’s most important visual record.

Rusty vintage tractor in rural Clarkesville, Georgia

Do you believe that photography has the potential to break down cultural and political barriers? If so, how?

Indeed I do. Think of the lasting impact of images that preserve evidence of the more inclusive demographics of hundreds of places, occupations, and activities across our land, not to mention countless photographs of Americans helping each other, learning and praying with each other, and mobilizing for justice at many levels of our society. I have been moved to see and capture moments with those who help the homeless, care for the sick and dying, and volunteer in a thousand ways to improve others’ lives and make their communities better.

You’ve been shooting for over 40 years. In your opinion, what are the most significant changes you’ve seen in the industry, positive or negative?

Photography has come great distances since the days of Frances and Dorothea and my own early years in the profession. I’m lucky to work in these times rather than the grueling days in which those women (and other photographers) lugged cumbersome, slow-operating film cameras requiring tricky follow-up work in a darkroom after a shoot was completed. Now I can take the shot, move on and — much later in front of my computer — work magic that could not have been fathomed years ago.

Cowboys on a Colorado ranch

I don’t alter my Library of Congress images much at all, since the historical record should reflect exactly what was seen. But I can enhance the “oomph” — the impact — of a photo, and edit out spots and nonessential, distracting intrusions such as a discarded soda can in a scene depicting an “Old West” shootout. I feel blessed that our equipment is vastly improved, our knowledge has grown thanks to online tutorials and such, and lessons can be learned from the good work of others that’s easily shared online.

How do you use social media to share your work and engage with people about the quest to document America?

Ornate costumers and marching band at the annual Mummers Parade, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I am on Facebook and Instagram just about every day, showing off America. The world is seeing and using these images and will do so for centuries to come. How great it is to produce images that convey both the grand majesty of our land and the delights of ordinary people and places. Because I am “boots on the ground” in documenting the story of late-20th and early-21st Century America, people want to know of my thoughts and experiences. So I love to share them, I get tremendous support and energy from the feedback, and I learn even more about our people and our land.

With the advancement of photo manipulation, how do you ensure images accurately represent their subjects?

As I mentioned, I have to be very careful not to do too much to an image. I need to tell the truth of what I saw. I do make sure the windows do not “blow out “ into blobs of white, or that shadows are impenetrably dark. I’m a documentarian who strives to capture and present my subjects in a credible — and impactful when possible — way.

Geometric glass interior of Wayfarers Chapel, Rancho Palos Verdes, California

As your career has progressed, has your subject matter and your aesthetic shifted over time?

Because I work every day — and I mean every day, every month, every year — my skills have certainly grown. I’d like to think that I now approach what Frances was so good at that it became the title of a book about her: A Talent for Detail. I do have a style, but it’s nothing flamboyant. And it has not changed much since I took my first credible photo in Siberia. Putting that style into words is difficult, but these descriptions might work: straightforward, thorough, observant, homing in on what’s striking or potentially historic.

Ceramicist in Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts

What’s next for you?

I will continue to work in the states until all 50 have been captured in enough depth that the Library of Congress collection is significantly updated. Remember, timeless and priceless though the 15 million images in that collection are, the lion’s share were taken on film, in black and white, decades and decades ago. My fresh color images in many cases enable researchers and everyday users to track the remarkable changes across our land.

And I want to slow my breakneck pace and start working more closely with people of goodwill across America, dwell on their faces and their life stories, and, perhaps help give our country a bit of a lift.

You can view and download Carol’s public domain images on Noun Project and learn more about the America project on her website.

Lindsay Stuart
Lindsay Stuart

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