Since her career change from Washington, D.C., radio executive to professional photographer 33 years ago, Carol M. Highsmith has crisscrossed the U.S., photographing the essence of America — its landscapes, people, events and architecture or “built environment” in all their glory and grittiness.
Her desire to intimately capture the American scene stemmed from a project she was given as a student at Washington’s Corcoran School of Art and Design. Assigned to photograph a model in an unusual location, Carol chose the Willard Hotel, once a magnet for U.S. presidents and eminent authors, among other notable figures.
Having epitomized luxury with elegant furnishings and intricate architectural elements, the Willard had deteriorated into nothing more than a crumbling shell with barren interiors. Carol remembers that this “hotel of presidents, two blocks from the White House was in shambles.” and resembled “a war zone, unheated, with gaping holes and rats the size of cats, right on Pennsylvania Avenue, America’s Main Street.”
A major impediment to restoration had been the lack of architectural drawings. But photographic pioneer Frances Benjamin Johnston came to the rescue. Her extensive interior images of the Willard following a massive renovation in 1901 enabled the hotel to eventually be restored to its former glory in 1986.
Johnston’s turn of the century visual records, coupled with Dorothea Lange’s mesmerizing images of migrant workers and dispossessed Dust Bowl families during the Great Depression, inspired Carol and fueled her determination to “record America during my lifetime so that many, many years from now, anyone viewing these images can see what we looked like so we have a sense of who we were.”
“This is America!” Becomes a Reality
What evolved has become a project of a lifetime — This is America! for which she’s collaborating yet again with the Library of Congress, a lifelong partner. The Library has amassed more than 25,000 of her images to date, storing them within her own named collection, making hers the only one of six such collections that showcases the work of a living American photographer. There are 15 million items in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.
Carol is in the process of traveling to each of the 50 U.S. states and territories to produce a “meticulous visual study of America so that generations of people throughout the world can gain a fuller understanding of American life in the early 21st century.” She is donating all of her images to the Library — and thus to the world — copyright-free, following in Frances Johnston’s footsteps.
For “This is America!”, Carol purchased a Phase One 645DF+ camera body with the IQ180 digital back and Capture One Pro 7 image editing software from Digital Transitions, a Phase One retail partner whose “great customer service and technical knowledge” she says she relies upon.
“My images must stand apart from the more mundane digital photos taken daily with cell phones and also must stand the test of time because they’re being preserved for future generations. I’m working for longevity, and the Phase One camera system is helping me to record our times correctly. There is no better camera system.”
Capture One Pro 7 Goes the Distance
Carol is especially delighted with Capture One Pro 7’s image editing. “Photographers are used to raw files and the ability to edit and create nuances in an image before going to the final product. But the latest version of the Capture One Pro 7 software allows me to manipulate, mold and shape an image now more than ever, whether it’s on my main computer or laptop. It gives me the tools to make my images ‘sing.’”
Carol loves the control Capture One Pro 7 software affords her when fine-tuning an image. “It’s the nuances that are so important – achieving that perfect cloud or sunset, the perfect lightened or darkened foreground. You can’t always control your working environment when you are out shooting, but you can control just about every detail in an image once you bring it into Capture One Pro 7. I will often underexpose an image, especially when there are complex clouds in the sky. Because Capture One Pro 7 is such a fine tool, I can easily meticulously lighten the shadows in an image and then leave the sky’s clouds exactly as I shot them, making for beautiful captures.”
Color correction is also critical in Carol’s editing process. “With Capture One Pro 7, I can adjust shadows and highlights and eliminate digital aberrations such as curvature and red and blue fringes that can show up on a photo.” Carol agrees that skin tones can look more vibrant and natural with Capture One Pro 7 and at the same time it prevents landscape grass from “going lime on you.”
Another Capture One Pro 7 feature that delights Carol is its smooth workflow, allowing you to “move from each task seamlessly. In no time, you can see your image as you actually witnessed it when you took the shot. From bringing the image into the software either tethered or as a file in a folder, to moving on to each icon on the dashboard, you can take the image to a level that far surpasses what you experienced at the scene. As we all know, it is in the raw state that these images take shape.”
Carol is taken with the Capture One Pro 7’s large-focus window, which is very efficient. “Capture One Pro 7 allows me to carefully look at an image before I bother working on the raw file. If it is not as sharp as a pin as only these huge files can be, I can move on to the next image.” “This saves me a great deal of time.”
According to Carol, naming conventions and ease of organization are critical when it comes to editing software. “Images now have long strings of letters and numbers. I don’t want to spend inordinate amounts of time doing this for one image only. With the Capture One Pro 7 software, I can now look at the name of an image and tell what state it is from, the year that it was taken on the Phase One camera, whether the image was cropped or left at the original dimension, and add a six-digit code to the end of the image. This is an amazing tool.”
Capture One Pro 7’s full cataloging feature, which enables Carol to store images and view and zoom and adjust the image whether it’s inside or outside the catalog, further simplifies her organizational routine.
Carol credits Capture One Pro 7 software and the Phase One 645DF+ camera and IQ180 back to substantially contributing to the high quality of her “This is America!” project. “It continually leaves me in awe of what truly iconic equipment can capture.”
Does she have any advice for aspiring photographers? “Tell stories with your camera. Think differently –– about what you can do that hasn’t been done before, or done as well or as distinctively. It doesn’t necessarily have to be glitzy, but try for something meaningful that will contribute to the visual record of our times.”
She underlines that there are no shortcuts — “you have to shoot a lot, and you can’t be defeated. There are inexpensive ways to showcase yourself -- like giving your work to a charity. And use the best possible equipment.”