Carol Highsmith Interview – 50 States (Minnesota)

June, 2019
Reading Time
10 mins
Down Arrow
Image © The Interviewee

Carol Highsmith – “Since 1980 I have been traveling and capturing images of America”

This week Creative Chair is in Minnesota talking with photographer Carol Highsmith. Carol has spent the past four decades creating an immense visual record of the 50 States.

More remarkably, she donates this work to the Library of Congress so that it is accessible to anyone, for free. At last count, her collection numbers 46,851 images.

This is the 47th instalment in the 50 States Series, and while our exploration of America may have taken longer than expected, it is dwarfed in comparison to Carol’s lifelong commitment to documenting the rich tapestry that is America.

In this interview, we explore Carol Highsmith’s motivations for taking on such an epic responsibility and, of course, examine the influence that her home state of Minnesota has had on her work.

Cowboys cross the North Platte River at Park Range Ranch, in North Park, Colorado. Carol Highsmith
Cowboys cross the North Platte River at Park Range Ranch, in North Park, Colorado. By Carol Highsmith

Tell us a little bit more about yourself and what you do

I have a different approach to photography than most. I consider myself to be a visual documentarian. My work will have usefulness and meaning for the generations; not so much a statement, but a reflection of what I see with the maximum possible clarity. I believe a good photograph is an image that is clear, well thought out and taken with the highest-resolution camera I can afford to put my hands on.

Spectacular fall scene near Rico in Dolores County, Colorado.
Spectacular fall scene near Rico in Dolores County, Colorado. By Carol Highsmith

Since 1980 I have been traveling and capturing images of America. Initially, I worked with 4×5 Arca Swiss film cameras and 35mm film cameras. I gradually moved to digital once I felt that format had overcome some of its earlier kinks.

“My work has significance because it’s not about me; it is available for everyone to use in the Library of Congress.”
Steam locomotives in the roundhouse of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Scenic Railroad in Durango, Colordo.
Steam locomotives in the roundhouse of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Scenic Railroad in Durango, Colorado. By Carol Highsmith

During my lifetime I am donating all my work to the Library of Congress; there it will live in the Dorothea Lange (see below) and Mathew Brady collections ‘without end date,‘ as its unparalleled preservationists put it. This body of work is considered to be the world’s most historic photographic archive, and my collection is featured in the top six. Out of 48 named collections in the Libray’s archives of an astounding 15 million images, mine is the third-most-visited.

Windmill silhouetted at sunset in eastern Colorado.
Windmill silhouetted at sunset in eastern Colorado. By Carol Highsmith

A multi-year, state-by-state visual exploration of this scale has not been conducted since Dorothea Lange and her colleagues set out to record the depravations of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl.

My work has significance because it’s not about me; it is available for everyone to use in the Library of Congress.

What prompted you to donate your life’s work to the Library of Congress?

Frances Benjamin Johnston and Dorothea Lange are two women who have inspired me. Both Johnston and Lange have produced collections that are now featured at the Library of Congress.

My career began in the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C, which is two blocks from the White House. Once the hotel of presidents, the Willard fell into disrepair in 1968 and subsequently closed.

Carol Highsmith at Willard Hotel 1980

“I marched down to the Library of Congress and announced that I, too, would leave a vast record of our times!”

In 1980 I walked into the hotel for a photography project and captured what looked like a war zone. This experience is what introduced me to Johnston’s work. In 1901, Johnston had photographed the hotel in its grand and elegant condition.

Willard Hotel 1901-1910 by Frances Benjamin Johnston
Willard Hotel 1901 by Frances Benjamin Johnston

The hotel was finally saved from demolition and restored back to its former glory. I documented the entire renovation. No architectural schematics could be found for the site, so artisans had only Frances’s images as a guide.

Johnston documented four presidents and their families, national parks, antebellum mansions, and the great World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in the 1890s. She was indefatigable. Johnston created an early cornerstone of the Library’s Prints & Photographs collection by donating her life’s work – an incredible 50,000 images.

Her can-do approach and obvious skill inspired me to the extent that I marched down to the Library of Congress and announced that I, too, would leave a vast record of our times!

The 156th 366 Award goes to Carol Highsmith for her outstanding creative work.

I also admire Dorothea Lange’s work. Her images of the great depression are haunting and unforgettable, and she, too, would go anywhere and everywhere to complete her herculean task.

I believe, as with my own work, that the contributions from Lange and her colleagues are the time stamp for an era – a record of our nation that becomes more valuable with each passing year.

A photograph that has become known as “Migrant Mother” is Dorothea Lange’s most famous image. Migrant Mother has been downloaded from the Library of Congress Photographic collection more times than any other image.

Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California Dorothea Lange 1936
Thirty-two-year-old destitute pea picker Florence Thompson comforts her daughters at a migrant camp in 1936 by Dorothea Lange

The work that I do is impelled not only by these landmark documentarians but also by their example of leaving a profound, consistent, and thorough visual record for others to use, study, and enjoy for generations to come.

Long “out of gas” applies to this old station in North Carolina.
Long “out of gas” applies to this abandoned station in North Carolina.  By Carol Highsmith

How has your state influenced the work that you do?

I was raised in Minnesota, and I will always love its beauty, its many ethnic influences, and especially its honest, hardy, and understated people. You can call me “Minnesota Nice” anytime!  I had so much fun growing up. I was the class clown and had tons of friends.

Storm Clouds Over rural Minnesota Barn. By Carol Highsmith
Storm Clouds Over rural Minnesota Barn. By Carol Highsmith

It seemed like my Dad documented my sister Sara’s and my entire young life and our every move. Not only did his experience influence my decision to become a visual documentarian, but it also helped me appreciate my roots, wonderful Minnesota, and the importance of recording and preserving – even what seem like ordinary moments in our history.

“All of my young life was recorded with Minnesota as the backdrop”
Skyline of Minneapolis, Minnesot
Skyline of Minneapolis, Minnesota. By Carol Highsmith

Our home life, our trips to Minnesota parks such as Itasca State Park and the chilly Lake Superior shoreline.  Minnesota actually has more than 10,000 lakes, and we were always swimming and boating on one of them. We also enjoyed the exploring Mississippi River on Dad’s boat.  All of it recorded by Dad, as I have said,  with Minnesota as the backdrop. I still have loads of friends in Minnesota even though I left the state fifty-five years ago. Whenever I see them, I bring along images that Dad took us all at my birthday parties, slumber parties, and the hearty backyard feasts from the time we were five years old.

Of your own work, what is your favourite project and why?

I have traveled to many places around the world…Europe many times, Russia, China and Cuba.  But nothing compares, in my soul, to the back roads, majestic plains and mountains, vibrant neighborhoods, and especially the back roads that I can stop and explore to my heart’s content, all the while visually documenting America during my lifetime.

“donating them copyright-free to the Library of Congress makes me feel like I have made a contribution that will be appreciated many years after I leave this good earth”
A cowboy and his dog cross the snowy Ladder Livestock ranch, a vast cattle and sheep-ranching operation that straddles the Wyoming-Colorado border.
A cowboy and his dog cross the snowy Ladder Livestock ranch, a vast cattle and sheep-ranching operation that straddles the Wyoming-Colorado border. By Carol Highsmith

Many scenes seem common in a world in which millions of quickie photos and “selfies” are snapped every day. But there is something to be said for capturing these scenes with a trained eye, fine equipment, and especially an eye toward preserving them for posterity, when much of what we take for granted will be gone – a curiosity to be appreciated and studied.

Knowing that I have recorded them to the best of my ability using the Phase One IQ4 – the highest-resolution camera on earth (151mp) and donating them copyright and royalty free to the Library of Congress makes me feel like I have made a contribution that will be used and appreciated many years after I leave this good earth.

Road through Death Valley, California by Carol Highsmith
Desolate Road through Death Valley, California. By Carol Highsmith

And finally, if you died and got reincarnated as a song, what would that song be?

Why, “America The Beautiful”, of course!!!!

You can see much more work from Carol Highsmith on her website and that of the Library of Congress.

America the Beautiful"
America the Beautiful ( 1910 > 1972)
Katharine Lee Bates > Ray Charles
Play on Apple Music
Play on Spotify
Play on YouTube
What began as a fun question to end an interview, has now become a wonderfully eclectic playlist featuring 156 songs and counting.

Since you’re here

In addition to being a source of inspiration, Creative Chair also supports several worthwhile causes including Circus Starr and Shine.

You hated seeing ads on the site, so we now collect funds in the forms of single or recurring donations. 100% of all donations go to charity.

Please, give whatever you can by heading over to our donations page where you can learn more about the charities we support.

Thank You

Signature
Creative Chair Founder
Minnesota with Carol Highsmith
Playlist