Carol M. Highsmith Interview: Acclaimed Photographer Explains, "It’s What’s Between Here and There That’s the Most Important Thing"
Written by Melissa Parker, Posted in Interviews Photographers
Image attributed to Carol M. Highsmith
Directly influenced by two female photographers, Frances Benjamin Johnston and Dorothea Lange, North Carolina native Carol M. Highsmith has been called “America’s Photographer.” Her collection at the Library of Congress is featured in the top six collections out of 15 million images in the Library’s Prints & Photographs archive alongside the work of Civil War master photographer Mathew Brady, Depression and Dust Bowl photojournalist Dorothea Lange and the Historic American Buildings Survey.
In addition to commercial and architectural photography, Highsmith has completed the exclusive photography for more than 50 nationally distributed coffee table books about US cities, states and regions and books on Ireland, Ellis Island, barns, lighthouses, engineering marvels and New York’s World Trade Center. Her photography has been the centerpiece of other books, the foremost being America Restored published by The National Trust for Historic Preservation for which she photographed in all 50 states.
"For 34 years. I have driven thousands and thousands of miles. I photographed California last year and never flew. I just drove because I felt that strongly about it. It’s what’s between here and there that’s the most important thing."
Highsmith began a multi-year project in 2010 that involves photographing 21st Century America for the Library of Congress and started that year in Alabama, in Connecticut and Washington, D.C., with underwriting from New York businessman George F. Landegger. Her next state to photograph was California, and she is currently working in Texas. Highsmith’s images from each state are given to the Library of Congress copyright free where anyone can use them.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Carol, you have traveled across America many times?
Carol M. Highsmith: For 34 years. I have driven thousands and thousands of miles. I photographed California last year and never flew. I just drove because I felt that strongly about it. It’s what’s between here and there that’s the most important thing.
In 2010, I was able to interest a man named George Landegger to fund me photographing Alabama because he loves that state, so there is now a George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama images in the Library of Congress. He went on to do a 265-page coffee table book that set the stage for what I’m up to now.
While I was in Alabama, they put my collection into the top six alongside Mathew Brady, Dorothea Lange and others. I’m the only living person in that top six collection out of 15 million images.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That’s quite an honor.
Carol M. Highsmith: Yes. I’m still kind of blown away by that. I can’t believe it. It’s really an out of body experience (laughs). It’s interesting because I appreciate that, but I’m still task oriented. I don’t get caught up too much in that moment because it’s just so important what I’m doing … it’s important to America.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Landegger has continued to support and fund the project?
Carol M. Highsmith: When we finished Alabama, he brought me up to his homestead in Connecticut. I am now working on that book. He also gave me the gift of doing Washington, D.C. where I actually reside. I used his granddaughter as an assistant, and we worked in D.C. neighborhoods. That was a lot of fun.
The Library of Congress has a group called the Madison Council, and it consists of wealthy Americans who have funded such things as the first map that ever had the word “America” on it, Lincoln letters, everything you can imagine, to bring into the Library of Congress. One of their members, Jon Lovelace, passed away a few years ago, but his firm called the Capital Group decided to fund me going to California and photographing, so that’s what I did in 2012 and 2013. I gave the Library of Congress 5,000 images of California.
I started the This is America! Foundation a couple of years ago and put together an advisory board with some fine people. Member and noted actor, Sam Waterston, told me that he felt what I was doing could be equated to what Curtis had done with the Indians back when he was alive or even a larger task because I want to do all of America in my lifetime, probably in the next 15 to 20 years. I’ve done it, but I haven’t done it thoroughly as it should be done.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When did your association with the Library of Congress begin?
Carol M. Highsmith: I have a 34-year relationship with the Library of Congress, let's put it that way. I was kind of spurred on with that when I walked into the Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue (two blocks from the white House) in 1980. It was demolished, and it was just a mess for years. The way they put it back together again was using images from a woman by the name of Frances Benjamin Johnston that she took in 1901. They had no architectural drawings. It took years before all of her photographs were online, and today they are.
After that, I wondered what could happen in my lifetime, but it had already begun. Buildings were being demolished and ripped down willy-nilly, and our historic structures were not being very highly regarded. So I told the Library of Congress in 1980 that I, in fact, would spend my life photographing first Washington and then throughout America, and anything I photographed would go copyright free to them. They looked at me like I was completely out of my mind and did not, at that point, believe me.
I continued with my work because I had been an architectural photographer for years and had many clients. I was photographing all of Pennsylvania Avenue (because it was being restored from the Willard to the Capitol) when Random House called and asked me to do a book series on America, so that was kind of the beginning of me traveling beyond Washington. I did that series for years, and it did very well. At that point, the Library of Congress looked at me more seriously. In 1992, they forged a relationship with me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And you now have a relationship with Donald Trump?
Carol M. Highsmith: (laughs) I photographed the Old Post Office for years as they restored it, and about two years ago, Donald Trump bought the building to turn it into a fine hotel. The Trump people recently wrote me and said, “We’d like to use an image you took of the Old Post Office as our signature image promoting the building.” So because that image is in the Library of Congress, I gave it to them and said, “Use it in good health. I’m very honored.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Where are you now, Carol?
Carol M. Highsmith: I’m in Houston. I just went out to this wonderful ranch and was just blown away by it. I’ve been in Texas about 3 ½ months. I’m taking aerials of Houston and did 1,300 aerial images of Dallas because those are the large cities. How will they look a couple of hundred years from now? Will tornadoes come across and just take them away? I talked to a guy in Galveston at what they call the Pleasure Pier where they have a Ferris wheel and rides. He said, “We can take down 85% of what’s on this pier if we’re in harm’s way.”
Houston is a very international city, and then there’s oil and money from oil and refineries, and they are everywhere you look. I flew Houston, and ships and refineries are everywhere from the little places in west Texas to the huge refineries on the east coast. You have the beach at Galveston and Corpus Christi, so the state is different than California and yet fascinating.
Many things about Texas have fascinated me. Their flag flies everywhere. It flies even with the US flag, so it is equal in some regards. It is showcased like the US flag. You see it painted on the sides of bars and every rodeo, every car dealer and on every other block. It flies with great pride. NASA (the Johnson Space Center) is still in Houston doing important business even though we’re not flying to the moon quite as often or at all.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have been photographing the major tourist attractions as well as the small towns off the beaten path?
Carol M. Highsmith: I did the Golden Gate Bridge and the tourist things in California because they’re important, too. You have to do that because the Library of Congress doesn’t have much color, and they certainly don’t have much of that. So I did all the normal stuff, but then I photographed all the way up to the northeast corridor where nobody goes. I did aerials in Los Angeles, and I photographed Jay Leno because I knew he was leaving, but I didn’t spend too much time with the movie stars.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): They had been photographed enough?
Carol M. Highsmith: Probably, and they love it, and they hate it, so I didn’t want to be part of that. When I was in California, the Library of Congress called and said that the Lyda Hill Foundation would be funding my trip to Texas, and I have about another month in the state. I’ll come back, as I did in Alabama, to capture football in the fall. There will also be a 265-page book on it coming out this year.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do you tell people in your travels, especially in the smaller towns, about your journey through America, and what are some normal reactions from citizens?
Carol M. Highsmith: I tell people that I’m here from the Library of Congress to capture what you have in your small town to bring it back to the greatest body of knowledge on earth and put it on the worldwide stage. Oftentimes, small towns are not even thought of, and yet they’re such a large part of America. More than 80% of America is rural, and I’m very interested in that part of America.
I tell the people when I arrive, “We think you’re important. I didn’t come here just because I rode by it and just happened to see something interesting, I came here on purpose. I studied your town, and then I came because I think you’re that important.” Many times, their eyes get wider than saucers, and they’re kind of incredulous. Many times they don’t know exactly what the Library of Congress is and what it does, so I always leave my business cards with them.
I tell them that in a few months they are going to be in the Library of Congress. I’ll photograph them or their children and say, “This image will be listed under your name in the Library of Congress. After a few months, type your name in Google, and that image will show up.” It’s just a fun gift to give people. I tell them that their descendants will be able to see what they looked like when all of this digital stuff is gone.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I guess that would be the natural order of things since digital will eventually replace all film.
Carol M. Highsmith: If film leaves this earth, I can guarantee you that digital is going to leave this good earth (laughs). Our cities and our people will change; clothes and hairstyles will change. There are so many things changing in each state. You can see what drought is doing to California and Texas. Austin, Texas which is a fine city filled with art and is kind of a small town/large town, has cranes everywhere. It is the fastest growing city in America, so Texas is vastly changing.
It’s just a wonderful thing to go into these towns and give this little gift of “let me care about you” because certainly the newspapers (the ones that are left) are not going to care, and the media doesn’t care.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s next, Carol?
Carol M. Highsmith: I’m working and hoping to get New York landmarks project turned around and funded next so that I can go into New York City. I’m very interested in big cities, but in the neighborhoods. There are more than 31,000 New York City landmarks. Obviously I couldn’t do them all.
Next year, it will be the 50th anniversary of Landmarks Preservation, so I’m trying to get funding to capture that and give three to five thousand images to the Library of Congress of New York City landmarks. I’m working on that right now as I finish up Texas and the one million other things I’m working on.
We’re also working on two or three states right now to try and get them on board. Through my foundation, we’re starting to now delve into all the states.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When do you rest when you’re on the road?
Carol M. Highsmith: I work 13 hours a day. I take no days off, and I’m not even a Type A personality, believe it or not. I will just stop every once in a while and watch a show on my iPad or do something interesting, but I love what I do. I adore it. I just want to do it every day. I can’t wait. The other day I walked 11 miles, and I didn’t even know I walked them. I had no idea because I was having so much fun.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do you enjoy most when you’re out there photographing America's beauty?
Carol M. Highsmith: All of it. It just gives me a thrill knowing these images will exist somewhere, that they will be kept somewhere important, and that is huge. My 50th high school reunion is coming up this year, and I still think of myself as that person at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis. That’s who I am, so I don’t look at myself and go, “Oh, you’re so important.” I don’t know from that. All I know is I’m just thrilled the Library of Congress sees this is important, and I’m thrilled that I can give this small gift to people.
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