By DONNA URSCHEL
In what she calls her “career capstone,” photographer Carol M. Highsmith has embarked on a multi-year project to create a visual record of 21st-century America, to be donated to the Library of Congress. The project will be the first comprehensive photographic study of the entire nation since the historic Farm Security Administration work of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and other photographers during the Depression and Dust-Bowl era of the early 20th century—a collection that is also housed in the nation’s library and accessible on its website at www.loc.gov/pictures/.
The cities, towns and countryside of 21st-century America, and the life of its people, are being documented by distinguished photographer Carol M. Highsmith, who is donating her photographs copyright-free to the Library of Congress to ensure worldwide access and preservation.
The first state Highsmith photographed was Alabama, where she spent four months earlier this year. Those images and others by Highsmith can be viewed in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC) at www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/highsm/.
More recently, she has been shooting Washington, D.C., and she will continue to photograph the country, state by state, completing the project in approximately 16 years.
“Once I got down to Alabama, I saw how important it was to document the cities and towns, the people and their way of life. The landscape is changing,” Highsmith said. “In 100 years, wooden barns will be gone—no one can afford to paint a barn. Some small towns will be gone.”
In Alabama, Highsmith liked to pull into small towns on Sundays.
“On Sunday morning, everyone is at church,” she said. “I could photograph a lot of streetscapes with no cars. I could see the town squares and the historic buildings.
“The great thing about Alabama is that it’s filled with historic buildings. Its towns are picturesque and iconic. I never thought Alabama could give me so much,” said Highsmith. “I loved it more than I can even tell you.”
Using a high-resolution digital camera, Highsmith captured 15,000 photographs in Alabama. “I had no dictate, so I shot everything, from the very, very mundane to the important and the amazingly historic.”
The Library has received about 4,000 photographs, and about 1,700 of them can be viewed on PPOC. Highsmith returned to Alabama this fall to shoot football at several of the universities and donate those photos to the Library.
The Alabama project was made possible by funding from philanthropist George F. Landegger, chairman of Parsons & Whittemore, one of the largest producers of market pulp, the raw material used in papermaking. The Alabama photos will be called the George F. Landegger Alabama Collection in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive. Landegger is also funding Highsmith’s photo shoot of Washington, D.C.
Highsmith will continue to seek private funding to support the 21st-Century America project. She hopes to find donors in every state.
While photographing in Alabama, Highsmith was well-received by local officials and residents. She was the subject of numerous feature stories in newspapers across the state, from small towns to Mobile.
A serendipitous encounter unfolded for Highsmith in Birmingham. It was widely written about in Alabama newspaper articles that Highsmith found her artistic inspiration in Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952), one of the first American women to achieve prominence as a photographer.
In March, a camera and tripod were found in a trunk of collectibles purchased by Wilburn, Ala., resident Terry Drummond. The trunk’s seller told Drummond that the camera apparently belonged to a female photographer who knew Booker T. Washington. Drummond consulted the archives department of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI). When the origin of the items was confirmed, BCRI and Drummond invited Highsmith back to Birmingham to show her the treasured camera and tripod once owned by Johnston. “It was unbelievable,” said Highsmith. “I was blown away.”
The trailblazing Johnston had conducted a photographic survey of the South at the turn of the 20th century. Johnston’s project started with funding from the Carnegie Corp. foundation, and Johnston also donated her photographs to the Library of Congress.
Highsmith, born in 1946, initially pursued a career as a broadcast account executive, working for WMAL radio station in Washington, D.C. In 1980, she was WMAL’s Employee of the Year. Photography was always an avocation. A career change occurred in 1981, however, when Highsmith was hired by developer Oliver Carr as the official photographer for the reconstruction of the then-dilapidated Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C.
It was at the Willard that Highsmith first learned of Frances Benjamin Johnston, who had done a full photographic study of the Beaux-Arts hotel in 1901, when it expanded from 100 to 389 rooms. In fact, Johnston’s images had guided the 1980s renovation of the historic structure, as not a single blueprint or artist’s drawing had survived during the hotel’s declining years. The grand hotel reopened in 1986, and for the next year the hotel displayed an extensive exhibit of Highsmith’s and Johnston’s photographs.
In 1992, Highsmith began donating her photographs, copyright-free, to the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress. These include photographs of the Library of Congress, which she donated to the Library in 2007. (See Information Bulletin, December 2007.)
Jeremy Adamson, director of Collections and Services at the Library, said, “Highsmith’s color images are certainly of the highest technical and artistic quality. But more importantly, she has the uncanny ability to identify, focus on and capture for posterity the essential features of our social landscape and physical environment, both natural and man-made.
“A photograph by Carol Highsmith is a document of rare precision and beauty, revealing with exacting clarity the look and feel of people and places across our great nation.”
Highsmith is planning her next destination—the state of Louisiana.
“There’s no better way to show off America than to take these images and donate them to the Library of Congress.”
Donna Urschel is a public affairs
specialist in the Library’s Office of