Carol M. Highsmith
Influenced by Frances Benjamin Johnston and Dorothea Lange
Carol M. Highsmith (born 1946) is a photographer, author, and publisher who has photographed all 50 of the United States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico for 30 years. She specializes in documenting architecture, ranging from the monumental to the everyday and whimsical. Highsmith is donating her life’s work of more than 100,000 images, copyright-free, to the Library of Congress, which established a rare one-person archive. Out of 14 million images, the Carol M. Highsmith collection is featured in the top six alongside of Mathew Brady and Dorethea Lange. 
“Is Carol Highsmith the most generous artist of our time?” the Havealittletalk blog asked in 2009.  C. Ford Peatross, director of the Center for Architecture at the Library of Congress answered in the affirmative in a letter supporting the 21st Century America Foundation’s support of Highsmith’s work across the United States. “The donation of Carol Highsmith’s photography is one of the greatest acts of generosity in the history of the Library of Congress.”
Professional Photography and Publishing
Her work has been featured in more than 50 hardback coffee-table books, most published by Crescent Books, an imprint of Random House in New York, and by Preservation Press, the publishing arm of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Highsmith also photographed and self-published six additional books: Forgotten No More, about the Korean War Veterans’ Memorial; Union Station: A Decorative History, about Washington’s historic train terminal; Reading Terminal and Market, about Philadelphia’s commuter rail station and farmers’ market; and The Mount Washington: A Century of Grandeur and Houston: Deep in the Heart.
During her early career, Highsmith photographed interior and exterior architecture. But as she and her writer-husband, Ted Landphair, traveled the country to every state and major city to work on the Random House “Photographic Tour” and smaller “Pictorial Souvenir” book series, Highsmith’s scope broadened to be a photographic documentarian. She photographed ordinary people and everyday sites as well as soaring architecture, natural landscapes, national parks and monuments, Civil War battlefields, and engineering marvels. Her book subjects included the cities San Francisco, New Orleans, Washington, and Chicago; New York's five boroughs; the states of Florida, Colorado, and Virginia; the Pacific Northwest and New England Coast; as well as lighthouses, barns, Amish culture, and the Appalachian Trail.
In 1998, Random House sent Highsmith and Landphair to Ireland, where, in every county of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, they produced Ireland: A Photographic Tour, their only book set outside the United States.
In early 2002, Random House’s Crescent Books label published World Trade Center: Tribute and Remembrance, about the 2001 September 11 attacks in New York and exclusively featuring Highsmith’s photographs. She had taken aerial photographs of the Twin Towers two months before they fell.
That same year, Highsmith and Landphair combined on Deep in the Heart, a book about Houston, Texas, financed by that city’s International Protocol Alliance. They also produced The Mount Washington: A Century of Grandeur, on the White Mountains resort. Highsmith collaborated with architectural writer Dixie Legler on Historic Bridges of Maryland, published by that state’s department of transportation.
In 2007, Highsmith photographed, and author Ryan Coonerty described, 52 monuments and other public sites in a National Geographic book Etched in Stone. “Each entry presents the words immortalized at a site, whose unique ambience suffuses Carol M. Highsmith’s compelling photographs,” the National Geographic Society Book Division wrote at the time.
Library of Congress
The Carol M. Highsmith collection is one of six featured collections in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. There are 14 million images in the Library of Congress collection.
In 2009, the Library of Congress acquired Carol Highsmith's 21st Century America “born digital” collection (photographs that originated in the digital format rather than as film transferred to digital) and expect it to grow to the largest photographic born digital collection at the Library of Congress. This archive, "Carol M. Highsmith’s America: Documenting the 21st Century", includes 1,000 images taken across the country. The collection emphasizes what Highsmith calls “Disappearing America,” including 200 shots taken along U.S. Route 66 in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma.
“The more she travels across the country, the more convinced she is about the need to capture in photographs a rapidly changing America,” noted a Library of Congress buletin. “‘The America I knew is disappearing at lightning speed,’ [Highsmith] observed.”
In February 2010 Highsmith began a journey to photograph every state in the United States, also donating these images, copyright-free to the Library of Congress. The first state, Alabama, will become the George F. Landegger Alabama Library of Congress Collection.
Carol M. Highsmith was directly influenced by two female photographers: Frances Benjamin Johnston and Dorothea Lange. Johnston, whose work is also preserved in a Library of Congress archive of more than 50,000 images taken on 8”x10” and 4”x5” large-format cameras, produced landmark studies of southern plantations, African-American and American Indian schools, national parks, and studio portraits of prominent Americans – including four presidents and their families – during 60 years from the 1890s to 1950s.
Lange, another archive at the Library of Congress, is remembered for her field work for the federal Farm Security Administration among migrant workers and other dispossessed families during the Great Depression of the 1930s – notably her iconic “Migrant Mother” photograph taken in a California migrant camp. Decades later, Highsmith photographed surviving shacks in the Weedpatch “Okie” camp in Kern County, California, that was the setting for much of John Steinbeck's novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
"Two hundred years from now, people might want to study what types of screws were sold, and they will be able to study my images and find detail to understand how things have changed," Highsmith told Beth Rowan on the Infoplease Web site in 2008 "These photos can tell a million and one stories. That's what sets still photography apart. With such tremendous quality, you can sit for hours and study a photo."
In 2007, the American Institute of Architects marked its 150th anniversary by inviting the public to vote on the AIA Web site for their favorite 150 U.S. architectural sites. Once the winners were selected – the Empire State Building finished first – the AIA utilized existing Highsmith photographs for more than 100 of the sites and commissioned her to photograph all but two of the remaining ones. One of the two – New York’s Penn Station, no longer stood, and the other, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on Hawaiʻi Island, had been badly damaged in an earthquake; historical photographs llustrated those sites. Enlargements of Highsmith’s photos for the “AIA 150” appeared in an exhibit at the Institute’s headquarters at the Octagon House in Washington, DC, and remain on the AIA 150 Web site.
In April 2009, Highsmith was one of four women included in the Library of Congress’s Women’s History Month Profiles on its Web site. Each year since 1999, Highsmith photographed monumental federal buildings across the nation for a unit of the General Services Administration, and has separately photographed art in federal buildings, including works commissioned by the Treasury Department and Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression of the 1930s. For the latter work, the GSA presented Highsmith with its Design Award in 2009.
Highsmith has photographed several National Trust for Historic Preservation properties, including architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Illinois, Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut, the Drayton Hall plantation house in South Carolina, and the Shadows on the Teche manor home in Louisiana.
For the Trust’s Preservation Press in 1994, Highsmith and Landphair produced their first national book, America Restored, as well as a book on Washington’s foreign embassies. America Restored detailed two restoration projects in each state, including the extensive renovations of the Fordyce Bathhouse in Hot Springs, Arkansas; the Sheraton Palace Hotel in San Francisco; Rockwood Manor House in Wilmington, Delaware; Georgia’s Jekyll Island Historic District; the covered bridges of Rush County, Indiana; Parlange Plantation in Louisiana; Broome County, New York’s, carousels; and the Battleship Texas in Houston.
On commission from the National Park Service, Highsmith photographed homes, personal belongings, and collections of four presidents (Lincoln, Eisenhower, Truman, and Theodore Roosevelt) as well as poet Carl Sandburg, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, African-American businesswoman and teacher Maggie Walker, the pioneer American nurse, Clara Barton and the Nez Perce American Indian Nation. The Park Service produced a “virtual multi-media exhibit” of Highsmith’s presidential collection photographs.
In 2002 the U.S. Postal Service chose Highsmith’s photograph of the Jefferson Memorial as the exclusive image for its new Priority Mail stamp.
“America is ever changing and the people and places that shape our everyday lives must be captured to tell the important stories of our present and our past to future generations,” Richard Moe, the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, wrote on the 21st Century America Web site. “I can’t think of a better photographer to undertake [the] immensely important task of documenting America than Carol Highsmith.”
Carol M. Highsmith and Frances Benjamin Johnston
It was at the Willard that Highsmith first learned of Frances Benjamin Johnston, and where she began her photography career. The once-opulent hotel was deserted, stripped of its furnishings and fixtures, and slated for demolition. “[The Willard’s] main tenant was a bum who was setting fires on the sixth floor,” Highsmith told the New York Times when the newspaper recounted the hotel’s long history in 2006. “There were rats the sizes of cats. If I didn’t take pictures, what would it look like in a few more years?” In its Winter 1995 issue, Old House Interiors magazine has also quoted her: “I started to think, if this can happen to America’s Main Street, what other buildings are decaying that we don’t even know about, and who’s documenting them?”.
Frances Benjamin Johnston became Highsmith’s beau ideal. Johnston, too, had done a full study of the Beaux-Arts hotel in 1901, when it expanded from 100 to 389 rooms. When the decrepit Willard was finally saved through the efforts of a spirited “Don’t Tear it Down” campaign, and then restored prior to its reopening in 1986, the only record available to those who re-created many of the hotel’s lavish features were Johnston’s faded, black-and-white images. Not a single blueprint or artist’s drawing had survived the gutting of the historic hotel.
“I was sucked into a moment of history,” the Washington area’s Journal newspapers quoted Highsmith in a 1988 profile. “I didn’t care if I got paid. I didn’t care if I ate. I had to take those photographs. When the Willard opened, people called me from all over the world. I was the only one who had any images of the famous hotel."
For a year after the grand hotel re-opened, it displayed an extensive exhibit of Highsmith and Johnston’s work in an alcove off the “Peacock Alley” corridor. That exhibit remains as a permanent collection in smaller form.
Years later, in 2006, the American Institute of Architects would mount a four-month comparative exhibit of Highsmith and Johnston’s work called “Two Windows on the Willard.” Like another rare, AIA one-person exhibit of Highsmith’s work, entitled “Structures of our Times: 31 Buildings That Changed Modern Life” in 2002, the “Two Windows” study traveled to several locations across the country.
By that time, Highsmith was well into her photography career, having left radio behind in 1984. She had pieced together a small, primarily architectural, photography practice.
Asked her personal motto by the Washington Times in a 1989 “Doers” profile, Highsmith replied, “A little hard work never hurt anyone.”
Highsmith landed a contract to showcase another building on Pennsylvania Avenue. It was a turreted building called Sears House, where the legendary Mathew Brady had operated the studios in which he and his assistants photographed Washington luminaries during and after the Civil War. Her work at Sears House would lead to Highsmith’s first photographic honor, a 1985 Award of Excellence from Communication Arts magazine.
In 1987, Highsmith’s tie to “The Avenue of Presidents” solidified when she was hired by the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Commission to document its wave of renovations on the avenue.
Pennsylvania Avenue: America’s Main Street, published by the American Institute of Architects’ AIA Press in 1988, became the first of her dozens of books. Detailing the transition of the avenue’s south side into the “Federal Triangle” and the methodical redevelopment of its shoddy north side, the book was augmented by historic photographs and a text by Landphair – who had been WMAL’s news director in the 1970s but barely knew Highsmith before leaving the station to work in other markets.
When Landphair returned to Washington to join the Voice of America in 1986, he and Highsmith reconnected, and they married two years later as the Pennsylvania Avenue book was going to press. Carol M. Highsmith had added a collaborator husband and four stepchildren to her busy life.
“As you both know, it took forty years, eight presidents, and a great succession of Congressional enactments” to “revive the Avenue,” U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had spearheaded Pennsylvania Avenue’s renovation since his days as an aide to President John F. Kennedy in the 1960s, wrote Highsmith and Landphair in 2000. “And you deserve a considerable share of the credit.”
In 1992, the Library of Congress accepted 500 of Highsmith’s photographs as what its Information Bulletin described as “the first installment of her continuing work to document architectural transitions in the nation’s capital.”
That same year, the D.C. Preservation League exhibited Highsmith’s cibachrome photos of Washington historic landmarks. “Her camera peers into dark, shaded porches in a shot of turn-of-the-century houses . . . then glances down the clapboards of spare, wooden row houses build a decade before,” the Washington Post reported. “With the exception of a canal boat gliding along the C&O [Canal], there’s nothing touristy here. It’s Washington as the locals know it.”
And in 1992 as well, the National Endowment for the Arts presented Highsmith with its largest individual grant, a $20,000 Design Arts fellowship and individual project award. The award funded her and Landphair’s travels to the western United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, to photograph examples of historic restoration for the America Restored book.
Highsmith deepened her affinity for architecture by documenting various stages of buildings’ renewal for contractors, architects, and developers. “Shooting enormous spaces in uncertain lighting conditions, her large format images reveal high quality and fine detail, capturing the splendor of the subject matter, be it a building in the midst of destruction or the elegance of a formal room,” American Photographers magazine commented in 1989 in American Photographers: An Illustrated Who’s Who Among Leading Contemporary Americans.
From 2000-2002, a three-year grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation enabled Highsmith to photographically study disadvantaged families in 22 cities where the foundation is active. “We knew that she was an accomplished photographer who had already captured, on film, memorable images of urban America as it changes before our eyes,” wrote Casey Foundation Communications Director Joy Moore in a letter supporting a grant application in 2003. “Over the ensuing months and years, we also learned that she brings great humanity to her art and the working relationships with people of every means and background . . . evoking the warmth and dedication that people in these circumstances bring to the difficult challenges of their lives.”
Later, the library’s online Prints & Photographs Catalog description of the growing Carol M. Highsmith Archive noted that, “starting in 2002, Highsmith provided scans or photographs she shot digitally with new donations to allow rapid online access throughout the world. Her generosity in dedicating the rights to the American people for copyright free access also makes this Archive a very special resource”.
Highsmith’s travels took her to more remote destinations, capturing covered bridges from Vermont to Indiana, murals and neon figures, classic cars and old motor courts and a giant blue concrete whale along U.S. Route 66, “bebop” motels on the New Jersey shore, a mining tipple in Wyoming and abandoned gas stations in Southside Virginia, abandoned steel mills and plantation ruins in Alabama, kudzu-covered barns in the Carolinas, roadside curiosities like a four-story donut and a giant “Aunt Jemima” that is now a gift shop, storefront churches and drive-in theaters and brick sections of the old National Road alongside a modern interstate highway. She developed a subspecialty that she calls “Disappearing America.”
“I work every day with a heartfelt commitment to document the living history and built environment of our times,” Highsmith told officials of the 21st Century America Foundation, which is raising funds to send her on yet another 50-state photographic exploration. “I consider my work an indestructible record of our vast nation, including sites that are fast fading, even disappearing, in the wake of growth, development, and decay.”
Commissions and awards
"Award of Excellence, Communications Arts Magazine, 1985"
"Pennsylvania Avenue Development Commission, 1987
"Crescent Books Imprint, Random House Publishers, 36 books, 1997-2003"
"National Endowment for the Arts Design Arts Fellowship, 1992"
"Photography of historic Federal buildings and art, for the General Services Administration, 1999-present"
"Photography of presidential and other notables’ belongings for the Museum Management Program of the National Park Service,
"Jefferson Memorial image chosen for first USPS Priority Mail stamp, 2002"
"Exclusive photographer of the AIA 150, America’s Favorite Architecture, 2007"
"Library of Congress’s Women’s History Month Profile, (1 of 4) 2008"
"General Services Administration Design Award, 2009"
"Library of Congress features Carol M. Highsmith's “born digital” America Collection and features her work on the Prints and Photographs site
^ a b "Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2010-04-02.
^ "Is Carol M. Highsmith the Most Generous Artist of Our Time?". Have a little talk blog. February 17, 2009. Retrieved 2010-04-02.
^ Carol M. Highsmith; Ted Landphair (January 7, 1995). Forgotten no more: the Korean War Veterans Memorial story. Chelsea Publishing. ISBN 9780962087738.
^ Carol M. Highsmith; Ted Landphair (June 1988). Union Station: a decorative history of Washington's grand terminal. Chelsea Publishing. ISBN 9780962087707.
^ Carol M. Highsmith; Ted Landphair (February 10, 1998). Ireland: A Photographic Tour. Crescent Books. ISBN 9780517187579.
^ Carol M. Highsmith (2001). World Trade Center: Tribute And Remembrance. Crescent Books. ISBN 978-0517220924.
^ Ryan Coonerty; Carol Highsmith (March 20, 2007). Etched in stone: enduring words from our nation's monuments. National Geographic Books. ISBN 9781426200267.
^ Raquel Maya (December 2007). "A Conversation with Carol Highsmith". Bulletin volume 66 number 12. Retrieved 2010-04-02.
^ Jerry Hayes (May 9, 2010). "Capturing Project Alabama in 100 days". WHNT19 News. Retrieved June 2, 2010.
^ "Photographs and papers of Frances Benjamin Johnston". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2010-04-03.
^ "Migrant Workers: Photographer: Dorothea Lange". Documenting America. Library of Congress.
^ Beth Rowen. "Renowned Photographer Plans a Cross-Country Trip to Photograph America: Carol M. Highsmith will donate her photos to the Library of Congress". Infoplease web site. Retrieved 2010-04-02.
^ "America's Favorite Architecture". American Institute of Architects. 2007. Retrieved 2010-04-02.
^ "Carol M. Highsmith (b. 1946)". Women's History Month. The Library of Congress. Retrieved 2010-03-02.
^ Carol M. Highsmith; Ted Landphair (1992). Embassies of Washington. Preservation Press. ISBN 9780891331704.
^ Carol M. Highsmith; Ted Landphair (1994). America restored. Preservation Press, National Trust for Historic Preservation. ISBN 9780891332282.
^ "3.85-dollar Jefferson Memorial". National Postal Museum. Smithsonian Institution.
^ "Two Windows on the Willard: The Photographs of Carol M. Highsmith and Frances Benjamin Johnston". American Architectural Foundation. Retrieved 2010-04-03.
^ Les Krantz (1989). American photographers: an illustrated who's who among leading contemporary Americans. Facts on File. ISBN 9780816014194.
"CarolHighsmithAmerica" Web site.