Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Carol M. Highsmith is out to create a comprehensive visual record of the U.S.—and she's donating it all.
On her lifelong mission to photograph the entire nation, Carol M. Highsmith estimates she's crossed the U.S. at least 25 times, ocean to ocean.
Her trips are always made by car, with a small arsenal of top-of-the-line digital cameras. She keeps her eye especially attuned to the architectural features of America: epic skyscrapers, disappearing roadside barns, utterly mundane office interiors.
Of course, that cross-country count doesn't include the 25 to 30 states she travels through every year on "shorter" photo trips, embarked upon from her home in Washington, D.C. The 68-year-old is constantly shooting there, as well. Especially right now, as she waits for funding from a donor to start on her next in-depth documentation of a state.
Highsmith is sometimes called "America's photographer," and for good reason. Determined to capture all 50 states in exhaustive, obsessive detail—"the nation's most ambitious visual record since the Depression"—she's been donating virtually all of her shots, copyright-free, to the Library of Congress since 1992, where they comprise a rare, one-person archive of some 30,000 images.
It's all part of an effort to document the diversity of American life: its buildings, mainly, but also its natural scenery, and its people. Because to her, it's all fleeting.
"It's so vastly important to us, that we have a visual record of who we are now," she told me recently at her Takoma Park home. "What I'm doing isn't really photography—it's all about preservation."
And the Library of Congress—"the keepers of the memories of the American people," in her words—is the only place she trusts to keep her images for true posterity. They're also completely free to download and use for anyone who wants to.
Highsmith found her connection to architectural photography in the early 1980s, when, as a night-school student at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, she was given the opportunity to photograph Pennsylvania Avenue's Willard Hotel as it was being restored. The once-splendid Beaux Arts building had fallen into extreme disrepair after it closed in 1968, following years of revenue loss to competitors and fallout from the devastating riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
"The Willard's owners had been so desperate to compete with Holiday Inn they had covered the columns with vinyl," Highsmith says. "When it finally closed, they ripped everything off the walls and sold it all at auction."
As Highsmith describes these ravages, a sense of profound injustice spikes her words. For her, old buildings are a portal to history, and to see them disappear without regard—and without documentation—is unconscionable.
"When I arrive in Detroit, or Dayton, or Cincinnati, I look around and see historic buildings, with details that just blow my socks off," she says. "But the thing is, there will never be another time when we do gargoyles. It's over. Those little details will never come again."
The Willard was Highsmith's first break professionally, and it was also her first exposure to the pioneering female photographer who's since served as her inspiration: Frances Benjamin Johnston, who'd photographed the hotel in 1901. A daughter of an elite D.C. family, Johnston broke social expectations of the age as she herself traveled the country documenting Americans and their built environments.
"I went to the Library of Congress, looked at her photos, and just died," says Highsmith. "I said to the librarian that I wanted to do photography like she did, across the country. He looked at me like I was crazy."
But Highsmith has a way of setting wildly ambitious goals, often beyond the scope of her present abilities, and just plain accomplishing them. After the Willard project wrapped (the hotel re-opened in 1986), Highsmith began photographing every other building nearby as the neighborhood was being redeveloped for the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation. In 1985, Random House called and offered her the chance to reboot an old photo-narrative series about places across America.
Highsmith was still fairly green as a photographer, but that didn't stop her. She and her husband, the writer Ted Landphair, spent the next many years driving across the country, creating 30-odd "pictorial souvenirs" of cities and landmarks nationwide. "I really taught myself photography driving across America," she says.
The Random House series, which sold more than one million books, kept Highsmith afloat for some time. Now, she's itching for a complete photographic tour of all 50 states—on her own terms, not a publisher's. She just needs the funding. In 2010, sponsored by paper magnate George Landegger and on behalf of the Library of Congress, she shot her "first state," Alabama, which took 6 months. She spent another 6 months doing California, funded by the Capital Group. Then 6 months in Texas, courtesy of Ms. Lyda Hill. Most recently, she wrapped up 3 months Connecticut, another Landegger sponsorship.
Funding for her fifth state is still being finalized, but if all goes according to plan, she could be on the road again in April.
She acknowledges that getting all 50 is going to take a while—15 more years, by her estimate. But Highsmith's not deterred, nor will she narrow her scope.
"Everywhere is important," she says. "You tell me I don't need to go to Joplin, Missouri? Things happen. Things change. I will work on this until I die."