Renowned Photographer Plans a Cross-Country Trip to Photograph America

Carol M. Highsmith will donate her photos to the Library of Congress

by Beth Rowen
Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial by Carol Highsmith

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Pioneering female photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston, who served as official White House photographer under presidents Harrison, Cleveland, McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt, has left her mark on history in ways both tangible and subtle. Her images provide a snapshot of American history in the late 1800s and 1900s. Johnston's legacy also endures through the work of renowned photographer Carol M. Highsmith, who is regarded as "America's Photographer." Indeed, Johnston has inspired Highsmith to chronicle America at the turn of the 21st century.

In February 2010, Highsmith, whose photos have appeared in dozens of books and magazines, embarked on an unprecedented, four-year project, called the 21st Century America Project, to capture contemporary American life. During Highsmith's extended road trip, which will have her traveling 200 days each year, she’ll focus not only on major landmarks, but also on small towns and big cities, major events and intimate church services.

Preserving a snapshot of American life

"I think it's important that Americans can look back and see what the country was all about at the turn of this century," Highsmith said in an interview. "America is still very, very young, and it's vital to document where we are now and where we're going."

Highsmith will upload videos of her trip on YouTube and provide CNN with ireports, providing generations to come with a permanent multimedia record of American history.

"I want to hit all states and showcase the fact that the United States has so many various facets," she said. In addition to highlighting the architecture of the country, Highsmith said she plans to "showcase people, their environments, and catch aspects of America that may be disappearing."

Photographs to be given to the Library of Congress

Highsmith plans to donate 4,000 photos from each state to the Library of Congress copy-right free, in addition to 1,000 she has already donated. The exhibit, Carol M. Highsmith's America: Documenting the 21st Century, is the first "born-digital" collection at the Library of Congress. The collection is an extraordinary gift for the library. Indeed, one-time use of photos by such an esteemed photographer can run several hundred—if not thousands—of dollars. Such generosity is not entirely unique. In fact, Johnston also donated her work to the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress, located in Washington, D.C., is the largest library in the world. The images in the Library of Congress's database are for public use, which means people and companies can download their photos and use them freely as long as they credit the Library of Congress as the source.

"I want to follow in Frances Benjamin Johnston's footsteps," Highsmith said. "She gave the Library of Congress copy-right free about 50,000 images. That was the cornerstone of their prints and photographs division. I felt it imperative to photograph the turn of this century as well as my lifetime and work with the Library of Congress to help them build their collection of new images."

Highsmith specializes in architectural photography. She was selected by the American Institute of Architects to shoot all 150 sites on their list of America's Favorite Buildings. In addition, her 2003 photograph of the Jefferson Memorial was used for the U.S. Postal Service's Priority Mail stamp. She uses a 39-megapixel Phase One camera that allows her to produce the highest-quality, high resolution images that reveal the minutest details.

"Two hundred years from now, people might want to study what types of screws were sold, and they will be able to study my images and find detail to understand how things have changed," Highsmith said. "These photos can tell a million and one stories. That's what sets still photography apart. With such tremendous quality, you can sit for hours and study a photo."

Information Please® Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

Did you know?
The oldest president inaugurated was Reagan (age 69); the youngest was Kennedy (age 43).

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