In 2010, Francis Smith's landlords told him he had to move out of his Brooklyn brownstone because they wanted to move back in. A professional photographer, who happened to be single and childless, Smith saw his unexpected eviction not as a setback, but as an opportunity to do something he'd always wanted to do: go on a "photographic exploration of American freedom and cultural diversity."
For Smith, now 53, that meant leaving New York City, which, despite having more than 8 million residents, still “didn’t feel like America,” he says. Smith wasn’t sure what the finished product would look like, but he knew what he wanted to use as a frame: a place name. The concept helped narrow down the nation’s 3.8 million square miles while encompassing a broad range of people and destinations.
Initially, he considered visiting all the Romes and Athenses in the United States. He also thought about Fredonia, his great-great-grandmother’s name — but there are only 10.
Eventually, he settled on Columbia — and in the intervening years, he would visit 64 Columbias in 45 states, not just towns and cities, but also neighborhoods, buildings and waterways. The results of his journey — which would take him from a raft on the Columbia River in Oregon to a horse-drawn carriage in Columbia, Tenn. — will be a photo book and accompanying multimedia performance called “America by Another Name,” which he hopes to take on the road as a show starting in late 2020.
Part of the reason Smith chose Columbia was personal — his ancestors were among the first settlers of Columbia, Tenn., and Columbia County, N.Y. — but he was also drawn to the word’s historical symbolism. While the name Columbia remains ubiquitous in the 21st century, “most people are unaware of Columbia’s importance,” says independent historian Ellen Berg. For more than 200 years, starting in the Colonial era, Lady Columbia was a popular historical meme “representing nationalism and welcoming immigrants,” according to Berg. Until 1931, “Hail Columbia”was considered our national anthem. “We are all,” Smith told me, “heirs to the liberty and American identity for which Columbia once stood ... the values that unite us.”
After leaving New York, Smith traveled for six months before settling in Washington in December 2010. He spent more than four years in D.C. honing his skills photographing people rather than “stuff.” As a story producer for International Artist Publishing, Smith has photographed the personal art collections of the wealthy for 14 years, a job he continued during his Columbia odyssey. In Washington, he grew more interested in capturing the way people express themselves, taking photos of them celebrating holidays, protesting, even looking at art. “D.C. nurtured me,” he says, explaining that the city helped him figure out how to “say something that’s not celebratory and not satirical.”
By 2015, Smith was ready to discover new Columbias. “I decided I needed to let go of the comforts of daily life ... and I just said, I’m living on the road,” he recalls. He bought a used minivan, added a mattress, storage for his cameras and a cooler for food, and left the nation’s capital behind. “Anyone who knows me didn’t blink. ... They know I’m a free spirit,” he says. During his 100,000-plus-mile journey, Smith relished his encounters with people “who observe various creeds, occupy disparate social classes, and claim ancestors from every continent,” he writes on his website.
Three Columbias in particular captured the “very different visions of American life,” he observed. The first was in Tennessee, where his great-great-great-grandmother was one of the original white settlers in the early 1800s. During visits there, he says, he found a “hotbed of antebellum nostalgia ... and Confederate sympathies.”
One of his favorite pictures is of the Sons of Confederate Veterans dressed in uniforms and holding their battle standard. Smith says it was a challenge to “represent people with whom I ... disagree heartily,” but he found it important “to be able to do that with equanimity.”
He also photographed the week-long celebration of Mule Day; the town once held the biggest mule market in the country. “The market for mules just isn’t what it used to be. When I was there, only two mules were sold,” Smith says. But “it was cool to see the people doing dressage with their mules and people dressed up ... in sequined cowboy hats and shirts. ... And then of course there were the mule week [beauty] queens. ... It was a real bit of American life.”
The second Columbia that made a big impression was in Iowa, “a dying farm town” with about 100 residents that he nonetheless found inspiring. The main part of town is punctuated by houses being torn down and an abandoned Masonic lodge — but in the Columbia fire station next door to the lodge, Smith came across a caucus for the 2016 Democratic presidential race. He photographed 30- to 50-somethings gathered in the brightly lit fluorescent community room trying to persuade each other to vote for their candidate.
“It was really fascinating to see that fabled element of American democracy” up close, says Smith. “I was delighted in seeing the citizenry participating in this neighborly ... community effort ... in a town that, like so many on the prairie and in rural areas, is fast disappearing.”
The third Columbia was more than a town: the Columbia River and the Columbia River Gorge, which he calls “exquisite places.” He stayed for three months, marveling at the “confluence of cultures” near Portland, Ore.
“You’ve got this maritime culture, which was dominated by people from Scandinavia,” he says, “and you’ve got the Native Americans for whom the salmon is their sacred animal and economically very important. And you’ve got the bohemians of Portland. ... There is more ink there on people’s skin than anywhere I’ve ever been. ... And then you go up the river and you’ve got all these jocks windsurfing.” Add in the tourists and a growing tech industry, and, for Smith, the Columbia River area could not be more different from Iowa and Tennessee in its “diversity of lifestyle” and “vibrance.”
What did he learn about America in his travels? I ask. The question elicits a deep, exhausted sigh followed by a long pause. “Living in a democratic republic isn’t easy,” Smith says, finally. But he knows what he wants others to learn from his project: “To have more compassion for each other and even for [our]selves. ... I want to show my fellow Americans, fellow humans, that ... we are all in this together.”
Cari Shane is a writer in Washington.