Photographer Pursues Her Dream by Documenting America

For 25 years photographer Carol Highsmith has crisscrossed the United States, trying to capture images of America before they disappear forever. Recently she has begun donating thousands of her photographs to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., which has one of the largest collections in the world. VOA producer Craig Fitzpatrick caught up with Carol Highsmith in the western state of Utah, where she is still pursuing her dream of documenting America.

Carol Highsmith is in a hurry. She wants to capture, on film, present day America so that future generations will be able to look back and see how life existed at the turn of the 21st century. Ms. Highsmith is in the western state of Utah photographing monoliths that will be around for years but other parts of America, she says, are slowly disappearing.

"Well I really do have a sense of urgency in my photography and that is that I feel there are certain aspects of American life as I know it that is definitely disappearing," she says. "Barns, wooden barns, which during my entire life have been everywhere I've looked are decaying, many of them are across the country, so I always photograph those. Lighthouses, which used to be extremely important to us are now starting to fall to decay, so I've photographed many, many lighthouses across America."

But it's not only the structures and landscapes that Carol focuses on; it's also Americans at work and play. "My palette really is America and that's what I'm interested in photographing for the rest of my career," she says.

A career that has produced 50,000 images and 50 books. Some of the images are of American icons, like this aerial photograph of the World Trade Center towers, three months before the September 11th attacks, and this one showing the grandeur of Washington, D.C. But sometimes images that aren't so grand - stand out the most. “Some of the small scenes are the ones that maybe stick with me," she says. "The elderly woman sitting on the edge of her bed in an old log cabin. Two little African-American children hugging each other.”

Carol's husband, Ted Landphair, a Voice of America reporter, plans her photographic excursions and writes short histories that accompany her photographs. Carol talks about her work.  "It's been a dream job to showcase America, and that's what I really truly think that I am doing, is just putting it on film for future generations," she says. Future generations will be able to come here to the Library of Congress, in Washington, D.C., or go online and look at Carol's images. She's in the process of donating all of her negatives to the Library.

"What Carol is going to do, is provide this magnificent portrait of America as it lives and breaths today and provide the opportunity for people to see her images because she is going to give them to us, the American people, and as a result the rest of the world, copyright free," says Jeremy Adamson, Head of Prints and Photographs with the Library of Congress.

 Carol was inspired to donate her negatives by this woman, Frances Benjamin Johnston, who photographed America at the turn of the 20th century. Like Johnston, Carol says, "She decided to give all of her work to the Library of Congress. She had about 50,000 images of early America, which included the White House, five different administrations of the White House, and the plantations of the South and Yellowstone National Park and Washington, D.C., and I decided I would like to do the same thing, give my work to the Library of congress and work in the same format, 4 by 5 [inches], large format, that she did."

Although Carol is essentially using the same type of camera that Ms. Johnston used, that's where the similarity ends. Her home office is filled with the latest technology to enhance, print and store her images. Images of America that will survive, she hopes, for many years.

"Just like in the case of Frances Benjamin Johnston my film will be the only record, because some of what I'm photographing that are maybe a hundred years old now, may be gone," she says. "So in many instances my film will be the only record just like her film was the only record of things that she saw when she photographed America at the turn of the century."

Carol says her desire to photograph America and her people is in her soul. It forces her to go out every day and document the land she loves and to know that years from now someone will look at her images and appreciate what she has done to preserve American life - at least on film.

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemeni
Henry Ridgwell
October 12, 2015 4:03 PM
The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemen

The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video No Resolution in Sight to US House Speaker Drama

Uncertainty grips the U.S. Congress, where no consensus replacement has emerged to succeed Republican House Speaker John Boehner after his surprise resignation announcement. Half of Congress is effectively leaderless weeks before America risks defaulting on its national debt and enduring another partial government shutdown.

Video New Art Exhibit Focuses on Hope

Out of struggle and despair often comes hope. That idea is behind a new art exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. "The Big Hope Show" features 25 artists, some of whom overcame trauma and loss. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy as US Holiday

The second Monday of October is Columbus Day in the United States, honoring explorer Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the Americas. The achievement is a source of pride for many, but for some the holiday is marked by controversy. Adrianna Zhang has more.

Video Anger Simmers as Turks Begin to Bury Blast Victims

The Turkish army carried out new air strikes on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets on Sunday, a day after the banned group announced a unilateral cease fire. The air raids apparently are in retaliation for the Saturday bombing in Turkey's capital Ankara that killed at least 95 people and wounded more than 200 others. But as Zlatica Hoke reports, there are suspicions that Islamic State is involved.

Video Bombings a Sign of Turkey’s Deep Troubles

Turkey has begun a three-day period of mourning following Saturday’s bomb attacks in the capital, Ankara, that killed nearly 100 people. With contentious parliamentary elections three weeks away, the attacks highlight the challenges Turkey is facing as it struggles with ethnic friction, an ongoing migrant crisis, and growing tensions with Russia. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Afghanistan’s Progress Aided by US Academic Center

Recent combat in Afghanistan has shifted world attention back to the central Asian nation’s continuing civil war and economic challenges. But, while there are many vexing problems facing Afghanistan’s government and people, a group of academics in Omaha, Nebraska has kept a strong faith in the nation’s future through programs to improve education. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Omaha, Nebraska.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video In 'He Named Me Malala,' Guggenheim Finds Normal in Extraordinary

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary "He Named Me Malala" offers a probing look into the life of 18-year-old Malala Yousafsai, the Pakistani teenager who, in 2012, was shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for her right to education in her hometown in Pakistan's Swat Valley. Guggenheim shows how, since then, Malala has become a symbol not as a victim of brutal violence, but as an advocate for girls’ education throughout the world. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.

Video Paintable Solar Cells May Someday Replace Silicon-Based Panels

Solar panels today are still factory-manufactured, with the use of some highly toxic substances such as cadmium chloride. But a researcher at St. Mary’s College, Maryland, says we are close to being able to create solar panels by painting them on a suitable surface, using nontoxic solutions. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs