By RAQUEL MAYA
Carol M. Highsmith is paving a new path in American photography, and she can’t wait to see where the journey will take her next. Highsmith has been photographing America for more than 30 years, but says she feels as if she has just begun.
At the age of 19, Highsmith moved from her home in Minneapolis to New York City to pursue a career in broadcast sales and marketing. During her years in the broadcast industry, she worked for such companies as ABC and Westinghouse and served on numerous boards. On a trip to Soviet Russia and China, Highsmith took along a camera to document her journey. It was her first real experience behind a lens and she thought, “Wow, how neat. This is what I want I do.” She quit her job and “started with nothing.”
To learn more about photography, Highsmith enrolled in evening classes at the Corcoran College of Art in Washington, D.C. It would be several years before she would pick up a camera professionally and alter the course of her life.
Highsmith became fascinated with several of the historic buildings in the nation’s capital. She fell hard for one in particular.
“I just walked into the Willard Hotel one day and it changed my outlook on things,” she said.
In 1981, Highsmith was hired by developer Oliver Carr as the official photographer for the reconstruction of the historic Willard Hotel, which first opened its doors in 1901. It had fallen into a state of ruin following its closure in 1968, but had been saved by the wrecker’s ball by community activists. Carr teamed with InterContinental Hotels and Resorts and directed a meticulous restoration. The magnificently restored hotel opened in August 1986.
It was only because of the work—80 years earlier—of another photographer that Carr’s construction crews were able to faithfully reproduce many details of the once-magnificent hotel. Pioneer photojournalist Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) had extensively photographed the 1901 reconstruction. So when no blueprints could be found, it was her black-and-white photographs that guided the 1981 renovation. Johnston made a decision early in her career to donate all of her photographs and manuscripts to the Library. With her generous donations, the Library is currently the principal repository for her works and writings.
Learning about the work done by “Frances,” as Highsmith refers to her, was another act of serendipity.
“I decided to follow Frances,” recalls Highsmith, whose strong connection to the work of her predecessor continues to serve as her inspiration. Highsmith has also followed Johnston’s example by donating her work—copyright free—to the Library of Congress, which has established the Carol M. Highsmith Archive.
Highsmith knows of Johnston’s life and work in great detail, and has even held a lock of her hair (contained in the Library’s Johnston collection). She has concluded that the similarities between the two stretch only so far.
“Frances was a Bohemian, a hard drinker and a loner,” Highsmith says. “I don’t walk that road.”
Nonetheless, for a five-year period in the early 1980s, Highsmith, like Johnston, took photographs alongside construction workers and demolition crews to capture the immense project each step of the way.
“People thought it was crazy for me to do because it was [potentially] very lethal. At times there was just one guard and me.”
A selection of Highsmith’s photographs has been on display at the Willard since its reopening in 1986. In 2006, The Library mounted a small display about the hotel in its “American Treasures of the Library of Congress” exhibition. The display was part of the Willard InterContinental Hotel’s “Willard 2006—A Hotel’s Legacy, A Nation’s History,” a yearlong celebration of the 20th anniversary of the 1986 re-opening of the historic site. Johnston’s and Highsmith’s photographs were among the featured exhibits.
In the course of her work at the Willard, Highsmith became concerned that many classic buildings in Washington were in disrepair and being demolished.
“If this happened in 70 years to a building one block away from the White House, what’s going to happen in my lifetime?”
After the Willard project, Highsmith began working with the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC), which, at the time, was working to revitalize “America’s Main Street.” Sensing the importance of getting aerial shots of the nation’s capital during this time of change, Highsmith agreed to complete the multiyear assignment at no charge as long as the PADC would arrange clearance for her to take aerial photographs of the U.S. Capitol and other Washington landmarks. Those rare photographs were featured in her first two coffee-table books about restored Pennsylvania Avenue and the city’s revitalized Union Station. These works have become all the more historic in the post-9/11 era when aerial access has been greatly restricted.
Highsmith’s reputation as an architectural photographer has grown to national prominence over the years, as she has traveled to every state and produced more than 50 books, including photographic tours of cities, pictorials of states, highlights of famous monuments and natural landscapes and studies of notable restoration projects. To date, she has sold more than 1.5 million books worldwide, both through Random House Publishing, National Geographic, Preservation Press and her own company, Chelsea Publishing.
From Maine to Hawaii, she has worked on projects for the General Services Administration, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Park Service and the Library of Congress.
In 2007, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) enlisted Highsmith to travel nationwide photographing on location for “America’s Favorite Architecture,” an exhibition containing photos of the public’s favorite 150 buildings, bridges, monuments and memorials as a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the AIA. The Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress—one of Highsmith’s favorite to photograph—was ranked 28th in the public opinion survey.
Photographing the nation’s architectural and natural landscape keeps Highsmith moving. Sometimes she spends weeks at a time on the road. She proudly admits to working nearly 24/7.
“I get up in the morning and I wonder ‘how can I pack it all in?’ If you’re not out there shooting, things can pass you by,” she says.
Fortunately, her husband, Voice of America reporter and essayist Ted Landphair, shares her passion. He plans to conduct oral history interviews with the people that Highsmith photographs in her proposed “21st-Century America” documentary project for the Library of Congress. Funding for the project is being sought through the project’s foundation.
“It will happen!” says Highsmith confidently.
The more she travels across the country, the more convinced she is about the need to capture in photographs a rapidly changing America.
“The America that I knew is disappearing at a lightning speed,” she observed.
With a sharp eye for the nuances that comprise America—from the delicate architectural details of monumental buildings to abandoned gas stations on the nation’s back roads—Carol Highsmith is out to capture it all.
“I’m very passionate about documenting this moment in time in America and showcasing it to the world. Through the Library of Congress, my hope is that this work will remain a part of our visual heritage for hundreds of years to come.”
Raquel Maya is an intern in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.