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

Photographer Carol M. Highsmith's ambitious Library of Congress quest -- a 50-state tour to capture timeless images for their permanent collection -- will freeze our nation in her frame. And the thousands of images will be free for downloading immediately, to anyone for any purpose.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2010

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.

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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.

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