Since Carol M. Highsmith left her radio executive position 33 years ago, her quest has been to photographically preserve America – its architecture, landscapes, events and people. She has captured an astounding array of images including presidential collections, myriad monuments and historic buildings, and homes and belongings of American luminaries. Her work reflects an impressive combination of technical excellence, a keen artistic eye, a passion for history and architecture, and unbridled enthusiasm.
More than 25,000 of Carol’s images are showcased within one of the Library of Congress’s six collections from its online photographic archive of 15 million images. She is the only living American photographer whose work the Library has chosen to spotlight.
Carol calls the Library “the greatest preservation body of knowledge on earth, but except for my work, it hasn’t stored much of a current, comprehensive visual record of America.” So, she is single-handedly remedying that situation by embarking on a daunting photographic odyssey in conjunction with the Library calls “This is America!” It involves extensive travel to all 50 states and U.S. territories – one at a time -- to produce a meticulous visual study of the American scene.
This is America! Comes to Life
For this unparalleled cultural heritage project, Carol is following in the footsteps of photographic pioneer Frances Benjamin Johnston, who captured much of the American scene at the turn of the 20th century, and Dorothea Lange, who is best known for her haunting images of migrant workers and dispossessed Dust Bowl families during the 1930s. And like Johnston, she is donating all of her images copyright-free to the Library.
“What’s important to me is to record America during my lifetime so that we can see what we looked like and have a sense of who we were. And people throughout the world will get a fuller understanding of America and American life in the early 21st century hundreds and even a thousand years from now.”
Carol has already logged thousands of miles traveling to Alabama and California, where she’s shot images ranging from cities and bayous and everyday scenes of American life to national icons such as Yosemite National Park and places off-the-beaten path that are unknown to most Californians. The Library has acquired 4,000 of her Alabama images and soon will be receiving 5,000 California photographs.
Mutual Digital Epiphanies
All of Carol’s photos for “This is America!” are high-resolution digital images. The Library had earlier been somewhat indifferent about moving into the digital realm, according to Carol. “But when 9-11 occurred and digital images of that event were quickly being captured, the Library had an epiphany, realizing that it would need a format that could instantaneously grasp occurrences in real time and that film might not be it.”
Carol had a similar epiphany. While she had once worked primarily with cumbersome 4x5 large-format equipment over a broad span of her career, she started to realize that film was rapidly disappearing as a viable photographic and archival instrument. So began her transition to medium-format digital camera systems, initially with a Leaf Aptus 75 camera in 2005, and then Phase One’s P45 camera system. She has been a faithful user of Phase One equipment ever since, including the P21 infrared camera, which she takes on cemetery shoots and when she wants to create dreamy and surprising moods. “I have a lot of fun with it.”
Once Carol decided on Phase One cameras, she looked carefully for the right retailer. “When you decide to buy a camera having the caliber of a Phase One, you need to deal with a company that’s been in the business for a while, has a reputation for strong customer service and the technical knowledge to help you upgrade as the digital platform continues to improve. I found that company in Digital Transitions. When I accidentally damaged my camera last summer, Digital Transitions helped me through the crisis and fixed the back like it was brand new. They’ve also been there to give me technical advice when needed.”
It is all in the detail
“I have never had a piece of equipment that I cherish like I do the Phase One camera. Also, it made me a hero at the Library of Congress because they had never seen anything like it either.”
Carol demands “clean and crystal” fidelity from her images. Nowhere has this requirement been more crucial than when photographing the presidential collections of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, the latter including “Ike’s bedroom slippers and Mamie’s lipstick.”
About five years ago, Carol was commissioned to photograph Lincoln’s collection at Ford’s Theatre, including the derringer used by John Wilkes Booth to assassinate the president and the compass he carried when fleeing Washington. “No one knew that Booth had scratched his identity onto the compass until I photographed it with the Phase One P45 camera system,” she says. “The quality was so crisp that you could clearly see his initials scrawled from 140-some years ago.”
Preserving America with the IQ180 digital back
For “This is America!”, Carol is relying heavily on the Phase One 645DF+ camera with the IQ180 digital back and Capture One Pro 7 editing software. “Because of the high visibility associated with these particular photographs, I feel compelled to deliver the best images possible. And these images also need to withstand the test of time because they are being preserved for future generations. I’m working for longevity, and this Phase one camera system is helping me to record current times and scenes correctly. There’s no better camera system. It is the platinum of cameras.”
Carol singles out the IQ180 back with its 80-megapixel capability as it “continuously delivers on the detail, precision and high resolution” that she requires and expects for “This is America! “Eighty megapixels are a necessity for me because of the road I’m walking with this project,” she states. “The IQ180’s menu with its scrolling up/down functionality is intuitive and easy to use. You don’t need a master’s degree to operate it. And the large screen on the back helps me see the images concisely, while the histogram, small image captures, level and data features on the side of the large image are very helpful. Although I often like to ponder on an image with my camera, all this information makes it very easy to quickly capture a scene if I need to. I also love the fact that I can shoot with an ISO as low as 35. Talk about quality!”
Quality has been a recurring theme with Carol throughout her career. And when it comes to This is America!, she gives substantial credit to the 645F+ camera and IQ180, as well as the Capture One Pro 7 software for enabling her to achieve “high- quality” images. “When you’ve been a photographer for as long as I have, it’s easy to take fine equipment for granted. I loved my large-format film cameras, but the quality of the images I see with my Phase One system constantly astonishes me. I’m continually in awe of what truly iconic equipment can capture. If a Phase One digital camera system had been available early on in my career, I’d have latched on to it, even if I’d had to save up and rent it.”