Editor’s Note: This post is the 3.24.20 transcript of Carol Highsmith podcast interview by National Board Director Amy Tierney on December 15 2019, with additional answers provided by Phil Michel, Digital Project Coordinator, Prints and Photographs Division, The Library of Congress.
Amy Tierney, ASMP: Hi, everyone. My name is Amy Tierney, and I’m one of the National Board Directors of the American Society of Media Photographers and a photographer myself. Today I am thrilled to interview our guest Carol Highsmith, who photographs in every state of the United States as well as DC and Puerto Rico on behalf of the Library of Congress.
Carol Highsmith: Thank you. I’m very honored to do this.
Amy: When I first met you, you were giving a presentation in Los Angeles at the Annenberg Space for Photography, and I was really struck by the moments you chose to contribute to the Library of Congress. You went through and you had an amazing presentation, and as I was sitting there I realized I wanted and I needed to connect you with the membership of ASMP because we have 38 chapters across the United States. So who better than yourself, who has seen all of those states in striking detail and would be able to connect with them so well. So can you start the conversation by telling us a little bit about what drew you to photography to begin with, and then how you made that choice to make it a career?
Carol: Well, I was actually working in the broadcasting business, and, um, I was putting myself through school at American University, and I actually won a trip to Russia in the late 70s … so, as I was packing to go one of my [broadcasting business] clients gave me a Pentax K 1000. That was one of my high end cameras. And I thought whoaaaaaa. Course, you could not go to Russia and take a bad photograph. That wasn’t even in the cards. Everything was more interesting than the last thing you photographed. So, I never looked at anything in Russia though my eyes, I just looked through the lens. I mean it was fabulous. It really was. And so when I came back, I had this little stack of amazing photographs, and that was the end of me. I was interested. I was interested in photography.
Now I must say that I was very influenced by my father who took photographs of me every twist and turn. From the moment I was teeny-weenie til when I finally left home at 18. I mean, he was absolutely click click around the clock. So of course I have all these fabulous photographs of myself and my sister and my family. Well, how lucky could I be? So between those two elements: going to Russia; well, how can you lose there, and having someone take photographs of me every step along the way I realized the importance of photography.
Amy: If you were to go back to Russia today, what’s one of the first places or spaces you think you would want to go?
Carol: Well, I went to Moscow, I went to Siberia, I went to St Petersburg. I went to all these places they had just opened. The GUM department store located in Moscow amazed me because all it had was one pair of shoes and a few little flies flying around. So Russia is an incredibly different place today. I mean, actually, it’s amazing. I think if I went back, it would be unrecognizable.
Amy: And I have to ask because, like you said at that time it was your first trip there. How were you getting around? Were you totally by yourself?
Carol: I went with a group. It was the only way you could go. Um, we were followed everywhere we went. I met some Russians before I left, who had just moved from Russia and they were working at NIH. Because I’m from Washington DC area, they gave me some jeans to give one of their friends from Moscow because jeans were very big then. But we were followed everywhere we went. So we went to the friend’s apartment and I gave her the jeans. She unscrewed the phone so no one could hear us talk. You know, it was like that then. It was all the things you ever heard that might be the case. They were the case. It was fascinating. And then to go up to Siberia. Oh it was so beautiful out there. So I mean, I was just … I couldn’t take my finger off the click. No, I could not.
Amy: And then when you got back, do you recall how many rolls of film you had?
Carol: No, I really don’t. All I know is … I was convinced, I think it was right at that time, I said to myself, ‘you know, this is a pretty amazing way to see life.’
Amy: Right, so that was at the beginning, some of the vision of your career you started to see that there was a way to use this [photography to work].
Carol: I was still working in broadcasting. They were paying for all my schooling. ABC owned it. They paid for everything.
Amy: What exactly were you doing for them?
Carol: I was working in sales and marketing. And, it was the number one station in America, so all you had to do was smile, and people would give you money. [Carol laughs]. So I learned how to smile. I collected checks. It was all PR, all of it.
Carol: I sold lots of things: European broadcasts and went on a trip. One time I sold a boxing match, so I was only paid commission on every round. So if it only lasted one round, it would not pay me much in commission. It went all rounds and I made quite a bit. So it was really fun. But anyway, so I decided to go to the Corcoran School of Photography at night. Again, all of it paid for. And then I really turned on to this craft that we all love. Ohhh!
Amy: And, all paid for because you got a scholarship?
Carol: Um, no. ABC would pay for your schooling, no matter what it was. Okay, so they paid for American University. American University had this program where if you wrote up your life experiences they would … give you credit for it. I shaved off two years. I talked about going to Russia, on putting together European broadcasts and doing all these things. So anyway, it was wonderful. It was just wonderful. But what really was wonderful is to come out of it with this fascination that not only could I see whatever I was looking at, but I could record it. So I started at the Corcoran School of Photography in Washington, DC at night. And, one of the first things they ask us is to come back with is, uh, some wonderful black and white scene. So I knew someone who was renovating the Willard Hotel. It used to be the hotel of presidents. It’s one block from the White House, and at that time, it was like a nuclear bomb had hit it. So it was completely empty, had been empty for many years. The riots that had taken place in 1968 had caused the hotel to close.. So it was just fascinating. It was rats and pigeons all over the place.
Carol: Uh, his name is Oliver Carr, who I still absolutely know today. He’s in his nineties. He’s still very involved in Washington DC Because he took over the repair of the Willard Hotel Washington DC is what it is today. But what happened when the riots moved in, you know, nobody wanted to work in downtown. We were all scared to death. So it was a very different place. Believe me, it was. So because he cared enough. And believe me, you had to care enough because nobody wanted to stay in your hotel, I mean, just to show you how bad it was right before it closed in 1968 … That was a five star hotel one block from the White House. They covered all of their columns with vinyl just to try to keep up with the Holiday Inn. It was bad. It was a very tough time for Washington. It was. Nothing wrong with Holiday Inn. But it was just, you know, it was kind of a 1950s look, just doing anything they could just to get people to stay there. Martin Luther King finished his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in the Willard Hotel. Then, after he was killed all around the Willard Hotel burned. It was bad, really bad. But anyway, I started my career at the Willard Hotel. It was me and the guard and the pigeons and the rats the size of the cats.
Amy: And you’re doing this assignment. And so what year was that?
Carol: That was 1980. That was fascinating. I mean, how could I not love this? So I taught myself photography in the Willard Hotel. I would go down there on the weekends, and I would, you know, use natural light. And finally I got a Hasselblad. Oh my lord, I went to New York and picked it up, hugged it all the way home on the train. I was so excited because finally I was kind of moving up from the Pentax K 1000.
Amy: Were you documenting interiors solely? Were you also bringing in models?
Carol: I brought in models from the Corcoran. I didn’t know anything about architecture. So two, three of my friends went in from the Corcoran and one of them shot the architecture. And I looked at his images and I thought, whoa, that’s amazing. And I was immediately turned on by the architecture of it. [So] I did. I brought in models. As a matter of fact, Oliver Carr still has my image of the model coming down the stairs in his office and I still use the image. I mean, it’s just so much fun. It was wild, it really was. But, there I was, teaching myself photography, just feet from the White House.
Amy: And then someone walked in who changed the course of your work as well.
Carol: Very much so. I worked in the Willard Hotel for a couple of years, […] One day this man walked by with a mitt full of black and white images. And I said, “What’s that?” And he said, ‘We have no architectural drawings.’ He said the only way we will know what this hotel looked like during its heyday are these photographs that I have in my hand and they’re from [Frances Benjamin Johnston’s work in] the Library of Congress. Well, you know, like most people, I thought, Well, that’s nice. I knew … I had heard the words Library of Congress but had no idea what it was. He said, ‘I’ll take you down there and I will show you her work.’ Oh, look, well, if you want to really get me married to something, take me down there. So he took me down and the staff met me. I saw her work, which was, by the way, the cornerstone of the Library of Congress prints and photographs Division. The most historic photograph collection on Earth. She was a cornerstone. Andrew Carnegie sent her down to record the, um, plantations of the south. So she was amazingly important. So I saw her work. I died over it. I just died over it. And I said, now I really know the importance. So I said to the staff that day, I said, “You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna do what she did. She gave her work to the Library of Congress.” They patted me on the head and said, ‘Are you completely right? You’re completely out of your mind. You have no idea what you’re talking about.’
Amy: Right. You’re new.
Carol: And so the more I got to know her work… now, she was an alcoholic, and I’m a teetotaler, so that was a little bit different. And she did live on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, finally. But, she was originally from Washington DC. Knew Theodore Roosevelt very well and photographed various things. Went across Yellowstone. I thought she was just fascinating. And if I could be just one little inch of that, I would die. So the more I knew about her, the more I realized this is what I wanted to do. And you know when The Willard opened they showed her photographs and my photographs of the Willard through the years in an exhibit. I died!
Amy: Side by side!
Carol: It was huge. I had no choice but to carry on with her. No choice. That was where it was gonna be. So it’s just, ah, it’s been wonderful. I mean, so I continued working with The Library of Congress. At that point, I was recording all of that rebuilding of Pennsylvania Avenue. I spent 17 years documenting the restoration of Pennsylvania Avenue, including aerial photography and any building. You know, Trump’s Hotel at this point, the old post office, I was in there all the time, you know, it was also dilapidated. Mathew Brady’s original studio is on the avenue, not too far from the capital. It was dilapidated and Sears bought that and then hired me to capture the interiors. So it was kind of an opportunity everywhere I went. It was just fabulous. Fascinating. What a way to go.
Amy: Really! What was your first choice to do aerial photography?
Carol: So I hooked up with this corporation called the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, which was quasi government, part private, part government to re-store Pennsylvania Ave.
Amy: When you say hooked up, tell our [readers] a little bit about your process there because they’re all small business owners. So it’s always the approach, you know?
Carol: I’m the queen of deals. If there’s a deal to be made, I’m going to make it. All right. So I’m thinking to myself, How can I get in the air? Well, little weenie bean Carol Highsmith can’t go ask because I’m no one. Okay? So, I go to Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation. I said, “I’m interested in doing aerials, and I bet you could use them.” They said yes. I said, “what if I didn’t charge you anything?” …. So guess what I was? … In the air all the time. I would first call the district people, and I would go up with them. And then I would call the park police that takes the President up, and then I would go up with them. I mean, I had so many aerials of Pennsylvania Avenue you just can’t even conceive it. So it was wonderful, because now I had, for instance, before they closed the street in front of the White House. You know, they closed it off. Well, there used to be cars that drove by in front and back, so I had all that. How fascinating and fabulous is that?
Amy: Yes, in fact.
Carol: So I recorded the whole restoration of Pennsylvania Avenue as each building was touched so you could see how dilapidated they were. The Willard had a sign for a long time: ‘The Willard is back.’ That was all there. So I had a lot. I had a treasure trove of aerials.
Amy: What was the other part of your agreement? So you’re able to make that deal. What was the other part of your agreement for you to use the photos, or?
Carol: Well, I would first of all share them with them. And donate free copyright to the Library of Congress. So here we go, the deal again. The deal is the following: I’m gonna share these with you. You can’t just send any old person up there. You gotta send me. I’m going to be on high-end camera equipment; I’m gonna be on my Hasselblad and I’m going to donate these to the Library of Congress. Well, how can you turn [that] down and I’m not gonna charge you anything? How could you turn down a deal like that? But because of my years in sales, uh, where I won every contest there was [where] I learned.
Amy: In fact, knowing sales and knowing PR are the two best skills a photographer can have.
Carol: If you don’t have them you might as well just hang it up, cause you are going to have trouble making it. You have to know how to sell … and you have to know how to think oddly. I think oddly, not creatively. Oddly.
Amy: Well, tell our audience a little bit about how you sustained while you’re doing that work for the Library of Congress and giving those images to them and, you know, not making sales off of those, how are you sustaining your life otherwise?
Carol: So the queen of deals (that’s what I am) would then go to normal clients and say, ‘You know, you might want to work with me because, well, I’m not a very big deal, but I am giving my work to the Library of Congress. They’re using it. Well, all of a sudden, they’re looking at me and thinking: ‘the Library of Congress. Wow.’ Then one day, Random House called me. They were looking for one image. One. And, the man at the Park Service was just taking weeks to get it to them. Well, I overnighted it to her. Well, the next day she gets on the phone. She said, ‘You have no idea.’ She said ‘You know, we’re thinking about redoing a book series of the United States.’ Now, it’s bargain books, so I went to put the phone down on the hook and she said (and I heard her barely): ‘The last series we did each one of the state’s sold 400,000 books.’ I quickly picked up the phone and I said, “When can I see you?” I went up to Random House, and I mean, we redid … my husband and I (who was a writer) redid the set of books for them, made a killing and traveled all over the United States for years. That was my first brush capturing all of America everywhere. Doing those books that paid us handsomely. Yeah, they might have been bargain books, folks, but they sold like water.
Amy: Because they connect with so many people. So that leads me to ask you … you’ve been documenting for the Library of Congress in all 50 states. What is your work flow like, for instance, do you work with any editors or others that helped shape what the direction and choice of your topics are?
Carol: They would buy little collections and a little this and that. And then one day … So I’m working mainly in 4×5 film. Well, Hasselblad and then 4×5 film… Well, they didn’t have any digital images coming in. None. Because it had not been tested … so, they weren’t sure of digital and at that time they probably had a good reason. So what I did is said, ‘Someone asked me if I’d take a couple of photographs of the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson building.’ So I took a couple. And then I went on to record the entire thing for two years. On digital.
Amy: On your own?
Carol: On digital as digital started to become more and more and more robust.
Amy: So you taught yourself not only the camera, but then you taught yourself the editing application and …
Carol: All of it. All of it. Then, I turned around and donated it to the Library of Congress. Now talk about indebted because they did not have it photographed. Not only indebted, but they then looked at digital because they had only accepted film until that time. Now one thing did happen to drive the train. 9-11. So it wasn’t me, although I’m already trying to move them off the dime to start to accept digital files, saying, “Look it, I’m going to give you these digital images that I’ve taken of your own building that I think you ought to accept.” So 9-11 happens and a photographer is going by the Pentagon and the Pentagon is hit by one of the planes, and somehow he got out of his car with his hands shaking beyond belief and took some digital images right then. And that’s when they said to themselves, ‘If we don’t accept digital look what we’ll miss. We can’t do that.’ The whole point of the Library of Congress is to be able to look in American history and history of the world and take in images for the ages. So that’s when between me saying ‘you know, maybe digital is arriving’ and what this man did with his shaky hands, I think they realized they needed to take it.
Amy: Can you remember and talk a little bit about what you did to educate them in archiving or did they bring somebody on staff at the time?
Carol: I was more the person that was going to give them [images] (not necessarily be behind the scenes. Uh, archiving it.) And, you know, although I did have several meetings with the staff at that time, it was, you know, I would ask them, What do you think? And it was, you know, that they weren’t sure.
Amy: They weren’t sure. It’s a new investment. Sure.
Carol: The Library then turned around and bought my (what they called) “Born Digital” collection and what I had shot to date because they realized that I needed to also just be able to eat. Uh, so they, you know, helped me along a lot. But I think they also realized the value. But you don’t understand. I mean, the thing that probably sets me apart a little bit is that my heart is in this. I realized the importance of it. I’m like Frances Benjamin Johnston. I don’t matter. I don’t matter at all. What matters is that we have a thorough documentation of our country. At all times.
Amy: So how many people today are responsible for editing all the images that you deliver?
[At this point, over email, after the interview, Carol referred Phil Michel, Digital Project Coordinator, Prints and Photographs Division, The Library of Congress to answer workflow and image archive infrastructure questions].
Phil Michel, Digital Project Coordinator, Prints and Photographs Division: [Two people are responsible. The hours are based on one person handling the following]: Hard drive (w/ ca. 300 images) assessing images and metadata, assuring no technical issues: 3 hours.
Uploading images to servers: 3 hours
Repository processes: 3 hours
Metadata extraction, renaming files, documenting delivery, updating inventories: 3 hours
Metadata verification and troubleshooting (if any), building bibliographic records, loading to main cataloging database: 32 hours. Total processing hours (estimate): 44 hours
The job titles of the staff supporting Carol Highsmith’s Collection are Senior Cataloging Specialist and Digital Library Specialist. They have many overlapping skills and both can manage all phases of the work I described. I’m leery of using the term editors because it implies they are changing or manipulating images and metadata which isn’t the case. The processing work is more keyed to preserving Carol’s work and transforming it for access in online catalogs.
Amy: What is the workflow, and infrastructure like after you receive Carol’s images?
Phil Michel: Carol delivers images to the Library of Congress on portable hard drives. We archive the images as we receive them in our repository management system (more on that below). Staff additionally inventory and track the images in our accessions database and in a collections management database that tracks the images we’ve received from her. To prepare the images for our online catalog system – we assign a unique permanent digital identifier, extract embedded metadata from the images and move it into a Library catalog record format, load the files onto a public access server, and generate derivatives that function in the online catalog.
Amy: How many editors work to review and further meta-data caption her work?
Phil Michel, Library of Congress: Our responsibility is to preserve and provide access to the images Carol creates and submits to the Library…the final product of her creative process. Carol’s captions aren’t reviewed or directly edited, however if we notice a possible mis-identification or other anomaly we will bring it to Carol’s attention for resolution. We have two staff that work closely with Carol to support the workflow described above
Amy: How many physical hard drives do the images initially get stored on at the Library? And, then, are there back-up (cloud) drives at an undisclosed site?
Phil Michel, Library of Congress: Offline, the Library’s repository system manages at least two iterations of the images as received and at least another two iterations of the images managed with their permanent identification. The public access versions of the images are also replicated on content distribution servers to facilitate rapid access. We verify the managed storage inventories annually.
[back to the interview between, Amy, ASMP and Carol Highsmith]
Amy: So, [Carol] you’re working with an editor [onsite at your shoots too]?
Carol: My husband, Ted Landphair, who travels with me everywhere does all of the metadata. There is nothing that goes to the Library of Congress that they don’t have a clue what it is. Because that’s the point, too, isn’t it? You know, if I was photographing the White House before they closed the streets in front and back, you need to know that…
Amy: What gear are you using right now? What camera? What lenses? What flashes?
Carol: I do know that I want to stay on the edge as far as photography equipment is concerned. I use Phase One XF iQ4 which came out not too long ago. I use pro photo strobes. I used the blue lenses, and I just, um, I’m so beyond myself I can hardly deal with myself. Uh, because how lucky can I be?
Amy: It’s got to be really exciting.
Carol: I’ve just scratched my head. See, it’s not about me. That’s the key. It is not about me. I’m the conduit. I’m just a step along the way.
Amy: I believe the same. Right. If you’re doing the work and you are so ensconced and joyful of being there doing it, it comes back to you. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t get difficult or challenging…
Carol: I mean that it’s really an out of body experience. 99.9% of the time I don’t remember that I’m doing this for the Library of Congress because the most important thing is getting it done and getting it done well, and I’m just absolutely honored that I could do this. I’m honored. How lucky can I be? Now, I know I’ve kind of made my bed. I get that. I’ve done this, that and the other thing; millions of things free. I get that too. You know, it’s like giving away little appetizers. You know at Whole Foods or something. You end up buying them.
Amy: Tell our listeners about how you do choose, or how you work with the Library of Congress, to determine where your next place will be to go. Or, what next topic you might photograph?
Carol: When funds come in either to the Library of Congress or through a wealthy donor, uh, that’s when I hop.
Amy: So they determine what it is.
Carol: So either the Library says, uh, ‘we’ll give you so much to do whatever you do’ or a wealthy donor, uh, donates the money for me to do a state, then that’s how I make my living. And how I’m able to give away my work.
Amy: So are you ever saying, ‘Oh, I want to go to Montana in the month of April because I want a document such and such.’ Are you ever dictating the where and when or are you relying on those donors to the Library to determine that?
Carol: So it’s um … so let’s say, you know, I get so much money to do whatever I get to do, uh, or somebody comes forth and says, I want to do the state of Montana. I think a little bit of the problem I’ve had (and I am working, so don’t worry) I’m not sure people totally get the importance of this collection. You know, it’s a Dorothea Lange moment. I’m in the Dorothea Lange, Mathew Brady collections. My collection’s the third most visited. Uh, not because of me. Because America is big. People used to understand collections. But because there are billions of photographs being taken every day, not sure people totally get it. So that’s been you know, that’s a little bit on my tail, too, and I have things in the works to make that more clear. I think it’s really important.
Amy: It is important to get that message out. One of the things that a lot of our members talk about because they are in different states and different places is niche. So the more people that have a better understanding about one photographer speaking really effectively and specifically about a certain genre of photography [is key]. Like in your case when it is a collection; a certain collection of Montana or you get even more granular and say you know a certain city or a certain space in Montana. The more granular you get and put those tags so people can go straight to that tag. That’s where I see people starting to make that connection. And they are reminded of the importance of a collection, how that helps them focus in and get what they want. When they see what they want.
Carol: I think the point is that all of us need to put the spotlight on ourselves, for people to understand that yes, there are billions of photographs being taken. We get that. Most of them on cell phones. We get that too. Then there’s us. And I say us because your membership is on up there as far as, you know, credentials are concerned.
Amy: I appreciate you saying that.
Carol: I think some of them are probably a little frustrated because there’s so much out there. Yes, there is. But we’re good at what we do. And everything is visual these days. No, I did a unique thing. I realize that, but there are a lot of other unique things out there. Every once in a while, I look at something and say, whoa, this person thought of, you know, doing fishes’ lips or something. I don’t know. You know what I mean? What a great idea that was. Sometimes you just have to think uniquely.
Amy: But in your case, like you’re saying, you are a very unique resource for documenting the states nation wide and other people may tell stories or want to show just one type of person in one type of place. Um, but to tell, let’s say the greater story of each state, it’s a very unique document and, more specifically, collection, for people to look at. So, we talked about the equipment that you use, and we talked about some of the backup. What are some of the big, ah ha moments you may have had along the way when you’re out on assignment that have kind of helped shape the next place or moment you want to capture?
Carol: I lean on the Library a lot here too. For instance, doing aerials. Aerials are time stamps. So the great thing about doing an aerial of Detroit or Minneapolis or any of these cities, they’re not going to look like this, folks, they’re going to change. So to have high resolution aerials I think it’s a very valuable thing for this collection. Um, what people are wearing and their clothes and cars. Small towns. How damaged some small towns are and how fabulous other small towns are because they pick themselves up. Uh, it’s a changing world out there. It’s a changing America. And so, um, you know, I might go to Texas where Roy Orbison was born. And, uh then 20 years later, go through it again. So it’s kind of interesting to be somewhere and then go through it again some other time. So that’s also good.
Amy: That’s the most fascinating.
Carol: I think the most important thing is the ah ha moments have been the importance of what we’re all doing. And I’ve heard this before, and it’s so true, it is the equipment in your hand. The reason it’s important for me to use very high end equipment is because mine are going away for the ages. And so I should stay on the edge. I think that’s really important.
Amy: It is really important.
Carol: Other people are doing fishes’ lips. And they might want an underwater camera that maybe doesn’t have to be that high resolution. But that needs to catch the lips correctly. Um, but, you know, we’re all very fortunate to be on the platform that we’re working in. I look at Frances Benjamin Johnston, the woman that influenced me. I mean, she was on this big, old lumbering thing that was five million, you know, feet high. And it’s just like Mathew Brady brought this old box camera out into the Civil War battlegrounds and then nobody wanted his images. It’s a different time. Now, it still might be somewhat of a hard time. But still everything’s visual, folks. Everything is.
Amy: It is. It’s the lingua franca of our time and for the foreseeable future. Um, it really truly is. Which is just like you’re saying… it makes it exciting to be a photographer, but also challenging when we’re trying to show ourselves and, then the communities out there, just how to best archive it, really. So it can be re-shown. Yeah. Are you just snapping and throwing it away, or how are you using it?
Carol: And, you have to believe in yourself. You know what I mean? Um, if you’re struggling and saying, Well, maybe I’m not that good. Believe in yourself. You could be good. The other great thing now is there is so much online. You can learn.
Amy: My god, it’s endless, I know, [in the best possible way].
Carol: So you know you say to yourself: I don’t know how to do such and such… Go online and learn it, you know? So it’s not like the olden days where you would say, Well, I don’t know how to do it and I don’t know how to learn it. Now you can sit in your bedroom and learn it.
Amy: In fact. And so I want to remind you and all of our listeners that with ASMP through the website, we do have various webinars that address legal issues, how to draft contracts and also how to photograph how to do things via social media. So just like you’re saying, if you can’t get in front of a person to show you, go through our website… and teach yourself. We have those resources and we’re very proud to be able to share those with photographers. We want to make certain that they keep learning. That it’s a lifelong learning lesson.
Carol: It’s a wonderful time.
Amy: On that note, that reminds me of something that you really liked and that you learned and you incorporated into your website, which are the cinemagraphs. Can you tell our audience what a cinemagraph is to begin with and then talk about some of the examples that are on your website?
Carol: The key is I decided I wanted something unique. So I have the theme America. So I went to the web team and I said, “Help, help, Help, help, help. I want people to get on and stay on and look. So we decided to take three images that I had taken and do a little bit with them. So I took these old locomotives out in Colorado and they were steam trains. So what you do with a cinemagraph is you add steam. So the shot I took was a still, but when we added the cinemagraph approach, we have the steam coming off the trains and we had the clouds moving past the tree, and we had the dust kicking up when we did the rodeo. So there was a piece of each one of my still images that moved, and that caught your attention, and you probably stayed on the website to kind of look at other little elements that I have done. I’m not trying to sell you images. I’m just trying to get your attention. It was just fun. It was a fun way to show off what I had done.
Amy: It is really fun. And in your case, you shot certain stills and then you separately went to look for an effect? [Did you license] those images?
Carol: Yes we licensed the smoke technique, and then added it to my image. Smoke, dust, clouds. So you know, I’ve seen one recently that really caught my eye. So you have this guy just totally standing still. He’s on a beach. The only thing that moves is his hair, because there’s wind. Everything else is completely still. So it’s just kind of fun. You could go on and look at cinemagraphs, and you’re gonna get hooked. Because it’s fun.
Amy: Oh, I love them. So when I saw them on your website I was thrilled that you used them. Because I do. I love them.
Carol: It’s a fun way to look at something… I’m trying to entertain you, is what I’m trying to do. And, you know, entertainment is kind of where to go these days. It’s kind of like a gift, isn’t it? So entertainment’s the key. I thought, well, what can I do to entertain? And that’s what website agency Beyond Definition did. And the other thing they gave me was my logo, which is an old timey way to write out the word America. So I mean, that was really neat too. So all of a sudden I wasn’t married to the flag for the red, white and blue. I was married to old timey America, which was really wonderful, because I am kind of old timey myself. I’m married to Frances Benjamin Johnston and what she did. And I’m married to the ages and what they will offer and how you look back on my work and say ‘Wow, is that what Washington DC looked like then? That’s incredible.’ And look back 100 years ago when it was just dirt roads. So what you need to understand is every time you click that shutter, you’re making a statement. Even if you’re not doing something for the Library of Congress, you’re still making a statement. Even if you’re just doing your children, they will appreciate it. Because I know I do.
Amy: I’m so glad you made that comment just now about that every time you snap, it is a statement. And I think that’s one of the key messages that photographers such as yourself and those who are in it as a profession have to give to everybody else who isn’t necessarily in it for a profession, but wants to take a good photograph. It’s that reminder.
Carol: Photography is just so neat. I mean, I’ve been working in the field for 1000 years and still love it, I’m not jaded. I love it. And I’m always wowed by what’s out there. And how lucky because even if we just take a cellphone image, we have the image. And everything is visual.
Amy: Even grocery shopping.
Carol: We have a way to show people: Instagram, and Facebook and all these ways. We never used to have any of that, you know. You took it, brought the four by five film home and then you developed it. You know, and then you had that still image, but couldn’t show it to anyone because it had to be scanned. I mean, it was all major.
Amy: What’s one of the next places you’re going to go either for the Library of Congress, or tell us about another project that you might be working on right now that has your attention.
Carol: I’m working in Florida in January. It’s really a tough job for the Library of Congress. I have been doing the Midwestern states: Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois. And then I just finished Virginia, which was fascinating and Williamsburg and I just loved it all. You know, the last time I was in Williamsburg, I was five years old. So, that was just exciting. Uh, I have some thoughts about what I’m gonna do. I am working on a project which I probably can’t share at this very very moment, but we’ll share the minute that I can. It’s definitely in the works. I’m, uh, knocking on doors, and thinking about how I want to do it. I mean, the minute I have it ready to talk about, I would like to talk to you all about it. I really would, because I think you’ll find it fascinating, but it’s just not quite there yet, and I don’t think about it until it is.
Carol: In the meantime I am working with other companies that are showcasing some of what I’m doing and working with the Library about: how can I do better? what can I do to help … understanding their needs. And they’re very up for having these huge files come in, which is wonderful, because I’m not sure most places would be able to accommodate them.
Amy: Just how big are the files? And are you delivering RAW?
Carol: So they’re 14,000 times 11,000. They are enormous. I was working in the state of Arizona, and the first time I was able to click the Phase One IQ 4 camera 151 (megapixel) um, I was at the Arizona Wave, which is this rock structure to die for. And they only let 20 people go on a day. People come from all over the world to go on. Somehow I got on by weeping. I wept every day. I called various people to see if they could help me get to the Wave and I would always weep so they would feel sorry for me. Anyway, I got on somehow. I took it with this camera. And I got in the car and I downloaded to my laptop, and I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Not only the quality, which was just like nothing I had ever seen, but also the color. So it was a whole new world. I thought, yeah, I’ve grown but because my camera has grown. So, you know, I realized I mean it was an effort for me then. I’m the one that buys it, not the Library of Congress. So it was a great effort for me.
Amy: Carol, do you do any contrast correction? Or, exposure correction before you send?
Carol: I’m not going in and saying, ‘Well, I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll make the reds much redder or the blues much richer.’ I’m really careful about that. Because what the color is, is what the color is folks. Uh, well, I do some things. I clean it up, you know, so there’s no dust. I make sure everything is sharper than a pin. I, um maybe, you know, give it a touch of contrast, but not much. I really want you to see that scene exactly how I saw it, even if it’s maybe not as rich or amazing as I could bring it, because that’s what I saw and I was there. So I think I feel the most important thing is for me to leave the cone in or leave the beer bottles hanging around because that’s what it looked like. So, you know, my quest to do something well is maybe a little different than you know ‘we’re there to do this photo shoot for the client.’ I’m there to record a mirror for the client. And, the client happens to be America, and the American people. And they need to see it like it looks. So, I’m very, very, very careful. I’m not going to retouch a face too much.
Amy: What are your computer specs in order for your computer to handle those files?
Carol: You know, it’s interesting. My laptop can pretty much handle them. I mean, I have the, you know, not the latest one that just came out, but I’m one step below that. [I use] my main computer at home, but I’m not home much. The laptop can pretty much handle them. It takes a minute. You know, I have to wait. But it’s worth it because I need to be there. I need to be on the edge. I do.
Carol: Again, I buy the very high end equipment because I’m that dedicated to it. That we have this amazing collection. If Frances Benjamin Johnston carried around her five foot by six foot camera and Mathew Brady rolled out his huge box camera (specially made) in the battlefields. Shame on me if I can’t carry a heavy Phase One and shame on me if I mind waiting a minute for the images to click in. In my soul I think that if I’m going to give to this country, I can’t go out with a cell phone. No, no, no, no, no. I have to give it and give it right, and no matter what the sacrifices are. And, believe me, they are, uh, the camera’s heavy. The expense is heavy. The work is heavy. I don’t know the last day I had off. No, I don’t. Uh, maybe 15 years. Not even a day, not even a weekend. That’s how committed I am. I just am. It took a-hold of me and I can’t let it go. And this is maybe what it takes. I mean, those of us in this business you already know your emotional people. You’re sensitive people, you’re creative people. You already know that. And I’m driving that point home, folks. Yes, I am. So if you already have this in you I’m not saying you have to have an [Phase One] IQ4. No, I am not. But I am saying do the best you can. Don’t get discouraged. You’re worth it. And so are your images. Now, yes, I went a different route and yes, I went the only route I know how to go: the best. And yes, I followed a woman who had done that. Thank goodness I’m not drinking. Although there are days (hahaha). But we’re just so lucky! And think about that every day how lucky we are. That we have these tools!
Amy: Carol, I hear what you’re saying and I do believe as well there are certain tools for certain stories and what you’re doing…it is in lock step with telling [the stories that are] happening now. And part of the story about what is happening now is what the best equipment is [at this time in history].
Carol: You don’t necessarily have to have the cutting edge like maybe I feel I do, because I’m giving to the ages. What you need to do is care enough to learn the tricks of the trade.
Amy: [So for] anybody who is starting on their journey to becoming a professional photographer, what would be one of the first pieces of advice that you would give to them to sustain themselves?
Carol: If you think you’re not old enough or not wise enough or don’t have enough training, just look at that little Greta [Thunberg] person and what she did. Oh, my Lord, can you imagine it? There she stands the Time [magazine] person of the year. Look at her. Number two: whenever I get maybe a little down or maybe the day hasn’t gone quite right. [I think about when] I was at warm springs where one of our presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had polio used to go and swim. And I think he was President of the United States of America, one of our best presidents, and he couldn’t walk. So if ever I get a little depressed, I’ve got a little bottle of the water that came from that warm springs. And I look at that, and I say “get your act together because he did it and he couldn’t even walk!” Look at others.
Amy: And, Carol, lastly, what about to economically sustain themselves?
Carol: Maybe you can only afford the Pentax K 1000. Okay. Learn to use that to the best of your ability. And not only that, be a little bit like Highsmith. Okay? Go out there and knock on doors and do deals. Tell ‘em you’ll give ‘em this for that, or that for this. Or what can I do for you? Maybe if I worked for you for a month, you might hire me. So think differently. Don’t go and just say I need a job now, when are you gonna give it to me? Go in and maybe show them something that they did that you had photographed, and they say, ‘whoa, this is good.’ You need to think uniquely. You need to say, I could do this. You need to believe in yourself because if I could do it (and I was no one and nothing) you could do it!
Amy: Carol the one key piece of advice that I’m hearing you say is to listen to what your client wants. And, then, you can make that exchange a very important part of [your agreement]. So, Carol, tell our listeners how they can find you when they go to the Library of Congress.
Carol: First of all go to Wikipedia that all leads you to everything. Put in Carol M. Highsmith and you’ll see more than maybe I want you to know. No, I’m kidding. And then that links you to the Library of Congress, that links you to my webpage, that links you to various people that have picked up on me.
Amy: Carol, tell us what your website page is, what your instagram link is, and then any other resources for people to find you.
Carol: [It’s carolhighsmithamerica.com] One day I had this unique idea. I thought, why don’t I become Carol Highsmith America? Oh, my Lord. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll put America at the end of my name. And, that’s what I did. So, if you want to go to my website, just put in CarolHighsmithAmerica.com There you be. And then it links to my Instagram and Facebook, etc. If you put it in Instagram you see the same thing. But it was just kind of a novel thought. I’m always trying to think ‘What can I do?’ You know, what can I do to maybe get better known or let people know what I’m up to.
Amy: It’s incredibly smart. We’re constantly trying to remind members, too, when you’re doing your social media, use tags; use words which directly relate to the genre of photography you’re working in. So like in your case, it’s America. When people are searching for images of America, you’re gonna come up. If you are a landscape photographer note the actual place, describe what your [audience will be] looking at.
Carol: There’s so much noise out there, you know? Who am I? Am I just Carol Highsmith or am I doing something? It took me a long time and I made a lot of mistakes. I decided one time I’d do websites. I did Wyoming [and others]. The problem is, I left out my name and I left out America. And it was a great lesson. Finally, I just took them all down. And I thought ‘am I out of my mind?’ So, don’t be too wide. Narrow it down, make it a little narrower.
Amy: In fact, the narrower you can get and have “a look” is how people will (like you’re saying when you decided to take those websites down), come back to you as the resource for that space and that narrative and those images and then your “look”.
Carol: Maybe sometimes you need to step back and look again and reevaluate. I think there’s a lot of lessons there. I do, I really do.
Carol: But the key is that we are lucky to be in this field. That is the key. We’re lucky to be photographers. And I feel that very strongly. And because we have this luck and this gift, it is important that we are successful. And the best way to be successful is to believe in yourself, and believe you’re worthy of it. Because you’ve been handed this gift and we have tools that are beyond belief. No matter what your camera, even if you just take a cellphone shot. I took a cellphone shot today, of my sister and myself when we were babies, because it was her birthday and I brought it in to Photoshop, cleaned it up a little bit and put it on Facebook. Nobody knew it was, you know, a cell phone shot. I was just trying to get it done quickly. But the key is that works too. You know, it certainly doesn’t work for the Library. It doesn’t work for my collection, or my portfolio or anything else, but it worked just to capture the moment. Um, but, you know, believe in yourself. You’re worthy. We’re lucky to be photographers. I hope I’ve given you some inspiration because of what I’ve done.
Amy: Carol, thank you so much for joining me today and sharing your journey with our audience. We hope you get to connect with each of our thirty-eight ASMP chapters in the very near future during your travels across the country. And this conversation was as inspirational as I thought it was going to be. So thank you again. I really appreciate it.
Carol: I’m honored, and thrilled that you asked me to share my thoughts. Thank you again and again for your interest.
Amy: Thank you again Carol.