Behind the Scenes with Carol Highsmith

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Apr 21, 2020

Featured artists

Carol Highsmith

In our series Behind the Scenes, artists answer questions about their creative process, philosophy, and more. This installment features Carol Highsmith, who has gifted her immense and important photographic oeuvre to the Library of Congress.

Read our other exclusive interviews with artists here.

How influential is your personal history and/or politics in your work?

A lot of gracious people tell me they envy the romance of my nomadic lifestyle, my happy marriage, and the freedom of discovery and expression that my work allows. Little do they know of the many setbacks, heartbreaks, and even wrenching failures that have forged my determination to work tirelessly, excel, and help others when I can. When others praise my work, I tell them in utter honesty: “It’s not about me or my legacy. It’s about you, and your kids’ kids’ kids, and a useful, tenderly preserved, and freely available visual record of this moment in the American story that will outlive us all.”

How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?

One of the best book titles about an artist or photographer that I have seen is “A Talent for Detail,” about Frances Benjamin Johnston, the pioneer female American photographer who has been my creative inspiration. Like Frances (b. 1864, d. 1952), I’m documenting an era, not with art shots of peach fuzz or hanging beads of water, but with a dash of Frances’s talent for detail and what some have called my own reliable “eye.” My subject is as broad as our land, my curiosity and delight are unbounded, but my focus is narrow each place I go. In a sense, I believe my eye is your eye through the enduring record of my work.

Self-PortaitFrances Benjamin Johnston
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Who, if anyone, do you show your in-progress work to?

Well, Ted – my husband, traveling companion, and rock – of course. He literally knows not where on my camera to find a shutter, nor do I have his gift of expression. But we share infinite moments of discovery, and he has screeched to many a halt in our 40,000 or so miles on the road each year, having spotted a speck out of the corner of his eye that he knows will thrill me. Nine-point-five times out of 10, he’s right. When the shots are history, I share them, and, he, with metadata magic, adds to their value and appeal.

Send an image of your workspace.

All over America!Carol M. Highsmith at George and Laura Bush Ranch in Crawford, Texas

America – all of it: east, west, north, south, stunning, tumbledown, exotic, ordinary, inspiring – is my workspace and palette. Like Johnny Cash, I’ve been everywhere and then some: “Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Buffalo, Winslow, Sarasota, Wichita, Tulsa, Tampa, Bangor, Baltimore, Amarillo” and more. Been there. Shot that. And loved every moment.

What do you feel when you look at your past work?

If growth is something you can feel, then I’ve felt it. I was 34 when I took my first professional photograph. In the 40 years since, I’ve lost track of the count. More than 72,000 of my images are in my Library of Congress collection for you to freely use and enjoy – right next to, I’m proud to say, those of Dorothea Lange and Mathew Brady. You’d probably agree my more recent shots show a touch more “feel” for light and shadow and nuance. But even the earliest of them are a resource, as the Library’s incomparable preservations put it, “for the ages.”

Which of your works means the most to you?

That’s a trap question like asking a mother which is her favorite child. The shots that may best reflect my mission are those that depict what I call Disappearing America: places that are (sometimes barely) here today, to be gone in not too many tomorrows. I treasure each chance to capture a once-shining, now sagging, barn; a two-lane highway lined with roadside attractions that has been shoved to obscurity by the Interstate highway system; magnificent homes and commercial buildings that somehow kept the wrecking ball at bay; and surviving curiosities like dinosaur parks and buildings shaped like milk bottles that once delighted generations and still delight me.

Send an image that makes you feel at home.

Carol M. Highsmith’s living room at her home in Maryland

Home makes me feel at home! We are far from it eight or nine months a year, and getting back to its Victorian warmth, and to Tuxey, Toasty, and Tootsie cats (who eventually remember us), is a balm, an anchor, a battery recharger, and a life reset. Soon enough, the itch to roam sets back in, and off we go.

What will make you feel successful?

To date, Ted and I have completed rather detailed visual studies of 33 of America’s 50 states (and taken many shorter forays into the other 17 as well). I’ll surely breathe a sigh of satisfaction when No. 50 is “in the can” . . . but of course, there’s always Guam and American Samoa! I’d probably want to start from State No. 1 and work to 50 again, but then, that prized “eye” of mine might have a cataract or two by then.

Would you rather have not enough to do with your day or too much?

There is no way I could stand having not enough to do. If I did, I’d make stuff up. Nobody believes me when I insist I am NOT a workaholic, but I’m adamant. You see, what I do is not work! Almost all of it is, as your category calls it, “fun”!

Send an image that represents what success means to you.

Young man getting his hair cut in the ethnic area of Hamtramck, Michigan

Success and satisfaction to me involve searching out and finding – and just as often stumbling upon – a scene, person, or people that embody the wonder of America: its diversity, resilience, and enduring goodwill. This barber and young customer of Middle Eastern roots found support, sustenance, and hope for the future in Hamtramck, Michigan, a reviving old mill town that is reinventing itself with the help of the American dream.

What do you think is the age at which people are at their most creative?

It can be any age at all. We all know “one-hit wonders” in many fields who took off like meteors and then disappeared. And others who aged and excelled like . . . what’s the cliché? . . . fine wine. Most people’s techniques get better over time, but not necessarily their insightfulness and “touch.” Talent and artfulness can’t fully be taught. When they start to go, one can always do something else creative. Old dogs (like the two of our three cats that are old) can learn new tricks!

Describe yourself as a journalist might if they’ve only met you for five minutes.

Well now, you baiting me into flattering myself? I think a journalist would report that I’m the Energizer Bunny in work boots, an incurable – some would say wearisome – optimist, and a person to whom the term “day off” is a fairy tale. The journalist would likely observe that my talk-to-listen scale skews a bit far to the former, but if I had more than the five minutes, I’d hope to convince her or him that it’s just life excites me. Ted tells me I, not he, should have attended his high school, where the motto is carpe diem. Consume the day.

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Carol Highsmith: Landscapes

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