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.