"I think they thought I'd lost my mind," photographer Carol M. Highsmith says of the moment she told the Library of Congress that she planned to photograph all of America and donate her images for free. "But, I thought, no one is documenting our country, so I'm going to do it." It may seem like quite a feat, but that's exactly the task Highsmith has taken on, and she's been at it since 1980.
Earlier that same year, Highsmith had discovered the archival collection at the Library of Congress. Happening upon the turn-of-the-century work of one of the first prominent female photographers, Frances Benjamin Johnston—noting her images of Yellowstone ("She went before cars were allowed, and for that reason, it's so incredible," Highsmith says)—was the true catalyst that set Highsmith out on this 36-year journey. Her newfound love of these historical documents fueled the drive to create a series of her own, one that would live on in the Library of Congress like Johnston's, forever available to the public.
It's hard not to be affected by Highsmith's love of the United States and appreciation for its natural beauty: "Our parks are our treasures," she says. "We're so fortunate that President Roosevelt had the foresight to preserve them."
This enthusiasm and dedication to create a preserved document has earned her generous backers including Texas entrepreneur and philanthropist Lyda Hill, the John B. Lovelace Fund, and George F. Landegger. These funds have afforded her the time to really explore the "nuances," as she calls them, of each state and each park (she's flown over Denali National Park to take aerial shots, has visited Yellowstone in every season, and traveled to Hawaii to shoot the volcanoes). "People don't realize how vast our parks system really is," Highsmith says. "It's endless."
Now, see a selection from Highsmith's breathtaking collection for yourself.
To see the full Carol M. Highsmith Archive and download images for yourself, see loc.gov.