Carol Highsmith, on a 16-year quest to photograph America for the Library of Congress

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2010; E01

As photo assignments go, it's a doozy. Spend 16 years capturing the disappearing highways, byways, buildings, barns, lighthouses, baseball games and bake-offs that define American life as we know it, then salt it away for posterity in the world's largest library.

Of course, your assignment also requires that you raise your own funds, provide your own travel -- and, oh yes -- donate all of your work, copyright-free, for eternity.

This is the unorthodox and stunning task D.C.-based photographer Carol M. Highsmith has set herself, embarking on a 50-state tour to capture timeless images for a permanent collection in the Library of Congress. The thousands of images she takes are free for downloading immediately, to anyone for any purpose. The digital works will go into the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, alongside the works of Civil War photographer Mathew Brady and Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange, in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive.

"It's mind-blowing, really," says Jeremy Adamson, director for collections and services at the library.

It's all part of a life-defining quest the 64-year-old Takoma Park resident has been playing out for years, following in the footsteps (figuratively and sometimes literally) of Frances Benjamin Johnston, a pioneer of female achievement in early photography. Johnston, a D.C. native who trekked across the nation in the late 19th century and early 20th century and donated all of her work to the library, gives Highsmith inspiration and a mandate.

"She donated all of her work, copyright-free," Highsmith is musing on a recent morning in downtown Washington, sitting at a table outside a cafe, still sounding amazed. "She lived on Bourbon Street in New Orleans at the end. She was a bit of a bohemian, and an alcoholic, and she had her issues, but she did this fabulous thing. And years ago, I decided I'd like to follow in her footsteps."

There is a pause.

"With the photography, not necessarily the rest," she says, bursting into a laugh.

Records for posterity

Her goal is hugely ambitious: More than 2,000 images per state (edited down from 5,000 or so), three states or so a year, for the next 16 years. She's after it all, from Washington to Waikiki, most of it focused on architecture, from the restoration of the Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue NW to the roadside Wigwam Motel in Arizona.

If it all works out, the Library of Congress will have more than 100,000 images of the nation in the early years of the 21st century, preserved as a sort of time capsule. Highsmith will be 80 years old when she wraps it up. She's already started, spending four months photographing in Alabama this spring and fall and in the District over the summer.

Her "Top 30 Pictures" from Alabama include statues, the Mobile skyline, a jazz musician, the neon Bama Theatre sign in Tuscaloosa, a detail shot of the Confederate Memorial in Montgomery.

In the District, she'll have a hard time choosing. She's published books on the federal monuments and on Union Station, and there's the building that got her started, the Willard. She's so entranced with the city's rowhouses that, of the initial 1,000 pictures she sent to the library, she estimates about 300 were of the roofs and details of the brick houses built more than a century ago.

"What's fantastic about Washington is that so much of it has been saved," Highsmith says. "Oh, my lord, I love the rowhouses. I love LeDroit Park. The historic fire stations. The New York Avenue Tabernacle. The old National Capitol columns at the Arboretum."

Creating photographic records for posterity is not new for Highsmith. She has been working with the Library of Congress for 30 years, and her images of the country are already featured, alongside the canons of Brady and Lange. Her image of the Jefferson Memorial was chosen by the Postal Service for a priority mail stamp.

Highsmith also has been traveling across the country for years, publishing more than 50 coffee-table and keepsake books with her husband, Ted Landphair. The books have sold more than 1.5 million copies, she says. This background, coupled with her personal intensity and interest in history, has set the stage for this ambitious project for the library.

"She's opened the door in a way no one else will," Adamson says. "Her images will be accessible. Free. . . . She looks at things with such precision, and nails it in such a way, that we'll always be able to know that people in the future will know what things looked like for us."

Adamson adds, half-jokingly, that Highsmith's architectural photography is so precise that "she appears to have the ability to command the sun to stop and the clouds not to drift."

The Willard project

Highsmith came to photography relatively late in life. She grew up in Minnesota, spending summers with well-to-do grandmothers in Atlanta and a small town in North Carolina. She took college classes in Iowa and married Mark Highsmith, an artist who enlisted in the Army and then shipped out to Vietnam. Carol Highsmith worked in radio advertising in New York and, after his return, the couple lived in Philadelphia. In 1969, Mark Highsmith committed suicide.

Seven years later, she wound up in Washington, working as a senior account executive at WMAL and taking classes towards a college degree. She was interested in photography; she had shot photographs on her occasional international travels and in 1981 won $3,000 worth of Nikon photo equipment in a contest. For a night class in photography at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, one assignment was to put together a photo shoot with a model in an unusual location. Highsmith chose the then-crumbling Willard Hotel. Her striking black and white photographs drew immediate attention, the beauty of the model and faded beauty of the historic property in elegant contrast.

This led to her being named the official photographer of the hotel's massive restoration project, completed in 1986, and it also introduced her to the work of Johnston, who had photographed the hotel extensively in 1901.

The more Highsmith learned of Johnston's trailblazing work -- her portraits of presidents and celebrities, her travels to the South to document faded plantations, her journeys to New England's mill towns -- the more excited she became about replicating those efforts a century later. She was 35 years old, and had found herself at last.

Today, Highsmith's living room has only pictures of Johnston or pictures taken by her. And Highsmith often comes downtown via 13th Street so that she can pass by where Johnston's house/studio once stood (behind the current Harrison Elementary school, at 13th and V Streets NW) and "I can see all the things that she saw, and have a moment of silence."

On a mission

Highsmith's pictures tend to focus on man-made buildings and edifices as a way of saying something about the people who made them. Eerie lighting in the New Orleans cities of the dead, the above-ground cemeteries. Las Vegas, viewed from above, the neon lights blue and white and orange and yellow and pink and green, a city of man in a desert created for scorpions.

When she went to Monroeville, Ala., where Truman Capote and Harper Lee grew up as neighbors, she found much of the town hadn't changed. "It was so fantastic I didn't know what to do with myself."

Her enthusiasm captured the imagination of paper-producing magnate George F. Landegger, who is bankrolling her Alabama work to the tune of $175,000. Once he was introduced to Highsmith, he was immediately won over to her project.

"She's coming to a dove hunt I'm having this weekend with friends," Landegger said recently, "and then I'm going to suspend her, at her request, from a helicopter during the Alabama-Florida game on Saturday night."

This sort of moxie is not news to Rebecca Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League, who has been working with Highsmith for years to capture images of D.C.'s sometimes less than sexy historical points.

"We took her to the McMillan Reservoir once for a shoot," says Miller, referring to the abandoned water treatment facility just off North Capitol Street. "I had to leave her there because she wanted to stay so long. . . . She really seems to be on a mission to photograph just about every individual monument in the city, and many of the commercial strips and neighborhoods."

It's a mission that has come a long way, and, by her lights, has a long way to go.

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