Carol M. Highsmith Interview: Famed Photojournalist Documents America for the Library of Congress
Photographer, author, and publisher Carol M. Highsmith has photographed all 50 of the United States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico for 30 years. She is donating her life’s work of more than 100,000 images, copyright free, to the Library of Congress, which established a rare one-person archive.
Not only has Highsmith photographed federal buildings across the nation for a unit of the General Services Administration (GSA) each year since 1999, but also photographed art works commissioned by the Treasury Department and Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression of the 1930s. For this work she received the GSA Design Award in 2009.
“I’ve been shooting for 30 years so I think a little bit of it is my eye. It’s kind of like rote at this point and that’s very helpful.”
Highsmith photographed homes, personal belongings, and collections of four presidents (Lincoln, Eisenhower, Truman, and Theodore Roosevelt), as well as poet Carl Sandburg, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, Clara Barton, and others, on commission from the National Park Service. A “virtual multi-media exhibit” was produced by the Park Service from Highsmith’s presidential photographs.
In April 2009, Highsmith was one of four women included in the Library of Congress Women’s History Month Profiles on its website.
The veteran photographer specializes in documenting architecture, but began in February 2010 on a journey to photograph every state in America, and to also donate those images, copyright free, to the Library of Congress. The first state, Alabama, will become the George F. Landegger Alabama Library of Congress Collection, and may be available for viewing in a few weeks.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Carol, tell me about your early life.
Carol M. Highsmith: I was born in North Carolina and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I spent all my summers in North Carolina on my granny’s tobacco farm and my grandmother’s highbrow Atlanta life.
I was raised in Minneapolis, but spent all of the summers down south. That’s the opposite of most people that go to the north in the summers (laughs). But, that’s why I think Alabama meant so much to me because I had kind of lived that life a little bit when I spent my summers with my grandparents.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you remember the first thing you photographed professionally?
Carol M. Highsmith: A client of mine gave me a camera to … I was taking a trip to Russia and, of course, there are no bad photographs to take in Russian Siberia. I came back with amazing stuff and was hooked.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you finished photographing Alabama?
Carol M. Highsmith: Yes, well no, I’m going back in the fall for some football games and other things. Mr. Landegger, who funded the project, is going to do a coffee table book. I’ve made 300 prints for him to see the whole layout of the book and everything and if there’s anything else he can think of he wants I will go and take more photos.
Carol M. Highsmith: Yes, but I’ve been photographing America for 30 years. D.C. is the next state. I still need to get funding for the rest of this. Obviously, the Library of Congress is very highly involved. They’re going to put out a press release to say that I’m now in my second state (if you want to call it that). I’m also talking to various other states about the project.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about the reason for the trip.
Carol M. Highsmith: Well, first of all, Alabama was funded by Mr. George F. Landegger, who just happens to love the state of Alabama. It will be called the George F. Landegger Collection.
What I wanted to do is use the state of Alabama as kind of the template for going forth. I probably won’t do 4,000 images again in the next state. What is so hard about this is not so much the photographs, but I have to put the database in there also. Once a month it was like stopping and writing a thesis about what I just saw. You know, you can’t take photographs and say, “Well here they are now!” That’s not how it works (laughs).
I stayed in Alabama an extra month because I couldn’t leave it alone. People say, “It’s Alabama … so?” I say, “So? Are you out of your mind?” Someone wrote me and said, “You must be really tired of it.” I said, “No, it’s like a living history lesson. Everyday when I got up I was more amazed by what I just saw.” For me, it was like getting in the car and having a TV screen. I just adored it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you familiar at all with Alabama?
Carol M. Highsmith: Although I know the United States very well and have traveled it for 30 years, I kind of knew and didn’t know Alabama. I really wasn’t sure what I was going to see and I was a little worried about it. But, every week I fell more in love with the state. I was very glad to have started this with Alabama.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are some of the things you photographed in the state?
Carol M. Highsmith: Black history, beyond belief, so I just kind of sunk my teeth into that. The Civil War was fascinating because it wasn’t necessarily all the major battles, but some interesting battles and end of war battles.
I loved the diversity. Of these 300 prints I just gave Mr. Landegger, there’s everything from the white beaches (which may be no longer white) of the shore to the balloon festival in Decatur to the Grotto to the Eufaula homes, to everything in between.
There was the rattlesnake rodeo, the cowboy rodeo, the mardi gras, and all the festivals. It was just absolutely fascinating.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What were some of your favorite subjects?
I went to the Montgomery Zoo and got wonderful shots of the white tiger there and took photos of the tin man’s art in Prattville. I photographed Percy Sledge performing at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame banquet and that was just amazing!
I spent a great deal of time in small towns and would try to visit on weekends so I wouldn’t have cars in the way of all the historic buildings. You know, I’m an architectural photographer by trade.
I was at the Selma March and did some historical mansions there, got the gators at Alligator Alley, saw Indian Bay, and Rural Studio in Mason’s Bend. I did the Tall Ship in Mobile Bay. They brought out the eagles for me at the stadium in Auburn. I went to the Coon Dog Cemetery in Tuscumbia, and Jasmine Hill. I’m probably an “Alabamaphile” at this point (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you decide what to photograph?
Carol M. Highsmith: Robert Gamble with the Alabama Historical Commission dotted the map to the small towns he thought were worth it for me to visit. That really helped me like you would not conceive. I was able to look at the map at all the yellow dots, and would have loved to see them all but I only had so much time.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you put your “regular” job on hold for the cross-country trip?
Carol M. Highsmith: No, as a matter of fact, sometimes I did photograph the architecture … like all of these beautiful white structures I was speaking about. I would try to get people as they related to architecture – like a little girl sitting on the stool at Three Georges Nuthouse in Mobile. You have the shop, the stools, and the history of it all with a little girl kind of bringing you into the scene.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When your photographs are listed with the Library of Congress, will there be a narrative with each of them?
Carol M. Highsmith: There will be a caption with every single one. You will know what every single image is. Now, it may be the death of me … you may actually be going to my funeral at the same time, only because it was very complex to do but that’s just the way it has to be (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How many images did you take and what kind of cameras were you using?
Carol M. Highsmith: There are 4,000 images. I probably took 15,000 and that does not include this fall. I narrowed the 15,000 down to 4,000. These are all high resolution, most of them over 100 megabytes on iconic cameras.
I’m using two or three different kinds of cameras. One is called a Phase One and is a commercial camera that goes up to 39 megapixels. Another camera I’m using is a Phase One infrared camera that takes black and white photographs that are kind of … well all the green turns white so it makes it kind of look dreamy. I did the cemeteries in infrared. I’ve given the Library of Congress lots of infrared over time; they really love it so I knew I could get away with it.
I also use the high end Canon (21 megapixels) to run with. If I’m trying to capture a Mardi Gras or something fast, then I run with that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’d like to ask you about technique. Do you use the “Rule of Thirds” for composition?
Carol M. Highsmith: No not really. I’ve been shooting for 30 years so I think a little bit of it is my eye. It’s kind of like rote at this point and that’s very helpful.
I said, “Well, here’s why. You don’t light jukeboxes. They light themselves.” So you need to know when to hold them and when to fold them (laughs). It really helps being an architectural photographer because there are subtle distinctions in differences and variations. Let’s say I’m taking the scene of a mardi gras. I’m cognizant of what’s behind the man riding down the street on the horse or the float so I’ll set it up in such a way that there’s an interesting backdrop.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Most photography instructors say they really can’t teach basic techniques. It has to come from experience and repeat experimentation.
Carol M. Highsmith: That’s right. There’s a reason why I don’t get my thumb in the lens, but the other thing is … we’re on digital now, so take millions of photos. Don’t ever stop shooting. At the Rickwood baseball game in Birmingham I don’t think that my finger ever left the button. I just kept on rolling and got really nice photos because of that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): All of the photographs on your website are beautiful. I found the photo of the train traveling down the hill unusual.
Carol M. Highsmith: You know, if I had said to myself, “Now wait a minute, what’s the one third, one third, one third here?” I would’ve missed the train. You get out and shoot like the wind and if you’re lucky you’re going to get it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There were also photos you could have only gotten from a helicopter. Do you go up often?
Carol M. Highsmith: Yes, I do helicopter work. I’m probably one of the few who has been over Washington, D.C. and I’ve done it for years. I don’t know yet if I’ll do any helicopter work in Alabama. It’s not my favorite thing, but when you go up with two pilots over Washington, D.C. in restricted air space, that’s an opportunity.
You see, I’m not shooting for today. I’m shooting for 100 years from today. I’m shooting so that people can see these and know what we looked like during this turn of the century.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Carol, was it tough for you as a woman beginning a photography career?
Carol M. Highsmith: No, not in the beginning because I was about the only one in it … architecturally anyway.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were there naysayers at the beginning of the cross-country project?
Carol M. Highsmith: There were many people who said … I’m sure more so even now … “Don’t do it, don’t give your work away.” I had a million people say a million things, but I just put blinders on and said, “Sorry, this is what I’m doing.” I am following in the footsteps of a woman that did it 100 years ago.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Frances Benjamin Johnston?
Carol M. Highsmith: Yes. Did you know that they found her camera while I was in Alabama? This man at the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham knew me because I had been in there shooting. I told him that I was following in Frances’ footsteps. She worked in Tuskegee. Booker T. Washington brought her down to photograph Tuskegee and Andrew Carnegie sent her down to do plantations. I thought that it was ironic a wealthy man sent me down to Alabama also.
Anyway, this man came in the Civil Rights Institute with an old 4” x 5” camera and said to the people, “I believe that this camera hooks back to Booker T. Washington but I don’t know how.” Of course, their eyes got like saucers because they knew about Frances from me. They said, “Is there any more to the camera?” The man said, “Well, I just gave Goodwill a whole box of things.” They said, “Oh my God, go back and get that box and see if there’s anything else.”
The box had her tripod in it with a nameplate that said, “If you find this, you must return this to the Willard Hotel.” Well, I started my career in the Willard Hotel when I got back from Russia. Isn’t that amazing?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Absolutely amazing.
Carol M. Highsmith: Frances had photographed the Willard Hotel. When it was restored prior to its opening in 1986, they used her photographs to put the hotel together because they had no architectural drawings.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): George Eastman (inventor of the Eastman Kodak cameras) gave Frances her first camera, right?
Carol M. Highsmith: That’s correct. Her mother was from Rochester so I think she probably knew Eastman. Frances is the cornerstone of the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress. There are 14,000,000 images there and about 65 collections that they deem special, including Frances’ collection and mine.
There are 6 that they feature and while I was in Alabama, they put me in the 6 along with Mathew Brady and Dorothea Lange. As I tell people, the reason I feel they did it was because of you (America), not because of Carol M. Highsmith. It’s nice and I appreciate it, but it happened because I was photographing the United States.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That’s quite an honor.
Carol M. Highsmith: Oh, I was blown away! As I said, I have a 30-year relationship with the Library of Congress, but about 15 years ago they really took my hand. I’m in touch with them almost daily. They are thrilled about this cross-country trip and pulling out all the stops to get it going. It has really worked, too, now that I have an institution that’s interested … that’s huge! I mean, they have in their collection the first map that has the word “America” on it, yet they have time for me. It’s unbelievable!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have a date when the Alabama collection will be available?
Carol M. Highsmith: As far as Alabama is concerned, we are all walking a huge pioneering road here. This will turn out to be the largest photographic digital collection that they have. They are taking these images and putting them online.
There’s probably no site in the world that could offer these files in the thousands to be downloaded as high-resolution files. That’s huge. So it’s taking them just a little while to get the kinks out. I think by the end of the month they’ll have the first 2,000 up. There’s a slideshow on Alabama up right now.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What advice would you give to young people just starting their careers in photography?
Carol M. Highsmith: I have two interns with me this summer; one is Mr. Landegger’s grandchild. I say to them, “Just because there are billions of photographs being taken, you may just be that one that does something different. Don’t do something just because someone else is doing it.”
Why have I been successful? I have cared enough to give. I want this to be a lasting look at America 100 or 1,000 years from now. Try to do something unique. Who am I? I’m just little Carol M. Highsmith photographer. But, who am I? I’m Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress. Ah … I caught a wave and I’m riding it. Try to think of something different. Don’t get caught in, “I’m going to be like everybody else.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Find your own niche.
Carol M. Highsmith: Exactly. One of my interns said to me, “There was this guy in New York. He photographed African American hairdos over the last 20 years and they’re doing a show of his work.” How fascinating! To do any kind of hairdos over the last 20 years would be fascinating!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Especially with some of those bad hairstyles in the 80s (laughs).
Carol M. Highsmith: Yeah! So, yes, everything’s been done … but has it? You want to tell Google that? Social media is also very important. I probably don’t use it as much as I need to, but I will once I get these templates put together.
Volunteering is important. I could certainly make a hell of a lot more money just as a commercial photographer instead of what I’m doing right now. People are giving me money to do this, but certainly I could make more money just doing my deed. There are a couple of websites where you can actually do photography for a cause. I want to do that at some point.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s next after Washington, D.C.?
Carol M. Highsmith: I’m working on funding right now for the next state after that. I hope to pick up one this year. I’d like to do 3 states a year for the next 16 years so that I do them all.
I don’t know which state will be after D.C., but I probably will do 2,000 images rather than 4,000 and stay two months instead of four months.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What have you enjoyed most about traveling and photographing?
Carol M. Highsmith: I’ve already had two towns in Alabama, Tuscumbia and Monroeville, ask for use of the images. I sent them and they were just delirious! It’s the small towns of America that I’m very interested in. They usually don’t get commercial photographers.
I’m basically taking Alabama and putting it on the world stage for everybody to see and download. The state gets to use the images; the world gets to use the images. I get to give it a little twist because I have some talent, then we keep them in our archives.
We’re losing film and we will lose digital. If you give them to the Library of Congress, at least there’s a prayer of having digital images 100 years from now.
Photo Credits: Front slider photo by Carol Highsmith
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