Carol Highsmith on the importance of her mission ~
“I am now using the highest digital camera made on Earth. . .That’s what I come to the map with. The real important aspect of this is that it is not for now I’m doing this. It’s for 1000 years from now, or 5000 years from now.”
A Ockershausen: This is Andy Ockershausen. This is Our Town, and it’s a special treat for me to talk to somebody, we go way back. This young lady worked in the WMAL sales department in the 1980s. She even won the WMAL Employee of the Year award the first year we gave that award. And she was an incredible addition to the WMAL staff. Since she left there, she’s been around doing extraordinary things with her life with her camera and with her husband, another WMAL legend, Ted Lanphair, who was a news director. Together, Ted and Carol Highsmith have roamed the country. She’s the official photographer of the United States Library of Congress. She is single-handedly documenting America one state at a time. [Check out her website at carolhighsmithamerica.com] The inspiration for her life work started in Our Town at the Willard Hotel. Our Town keeps popping up. Welcome to Our Town, Carol Highsmith.
Carol Highsmith: Thank you Andy. You know, just coming in today, how fun it was thinking about the good times we had here. And how wonderful it was when you led the troops, and we all just loved you to death. There was nothing like it.
A Ockershausen: It wasn’t. And Ken Hunter, our technical director, hears it all the time. There was nothing like the WMAL spirit. Sitting right there was Doc Walker, and he was talking about it, that he got something out of being part of WMAL. Even though he was doing a show, he knew what we were doing. You knew what we were doing, because you were part of it.
Carol Highsmith on Working in Sales at WMAL
Carol Highsmith: It was so much fun! I mean, we just had a ball!
A Ockershausen: Absolutely. It was entertainment.
Carol Highsmith: And I was in sales, so here’s the deal. You didn’t have to sell anything. You would just go out and pick up the order. My first day, first day, right? I had come from another number one station, KYW in Philadelphia.
A Ockershausen: Powerhouse.
Carol Highsmith: Hello. So I arrived at WMAL and went out to visit my clients, first day. Somebody handed me a $30,000 order. I thought, “Oh dear! This is going to be so much fun.”
A Ockershausen: You knew you hit the jackpot didn’t you?
Carol Highsmith: Oh, yes, I thought, it wasn’t sales. It was PR. You just go out and smile and they say, “Okay, how much money do you want?”
A Ockershausen: Well, you know, everybody that sits in that chair that was part of us always talks about the people, that the people were so important in the sales department. Like Bob Bowen, Pete Wysocki, you know, Frank Ford. They were all pros.
Carol Highsmith: They were.
A Ockershausen: I mean, you were not with a bunch of beginners. They were pros.
Carol Highsmith: That is very true, but guess who our leader was. The best salesman in the world, Andy Ockershausen.
A Ockershausen: That’s what I was named by Bill Regardie. I’m not sure.
Carol Highsmith: Seriously, how could we fail? We had at our helm someone who understood sales. And that wasn’t me.
A Ockershausen: And your husband Ted understood it.
Carol Highsmith: Yeah he did.
A Ockershausen: He knew WMAL, brought in a lot of good people. And then, you know, everything changes. But we waited a long time for our change to WMAL. And now we’re so happy, I’m sure you’ve heard that the Redskins have finally decided to have somebody listen to them. And they put the signal back to where it belongs, where it’s always belonged. In Our Town on WMAL. But Carol, your career has been incredible. I mean, I did not know that you were a Minnesota girl until I read about your travels from Minnesota to North Carolina. That was America. You saw it.
Travels from Minnesota to North Carolina as a Young Girl
Carol Highsmith: Well, that was exactly the point, wasn’t it? Here I was, about three … Every year, my dad would buy us a new old car. And he would send me and my sister and my mother off to North Carolina and Georgia. Every year, the car would fall apart in West Virginia. And we would stay above the … Play in the repair shop while the man got the part. And that is when I learned to love America. Because I would stare out, you know, from the backseat and see the miracle whizzing by.
A Ockershausen: You saw America through the back … You can’t see it in an airplane or train, but you can in automobiles.
Carol Highsmith: And we don’t fly to this day.
A Ockershausen: Is that right?
Carol Highsmith: We fly nowhere because there’s America between here and California or Colorado or wherever I’m going to be. Hello.
A Ockershausen: I’ll buy that. You’re so right. Your dad was a traveling salesman and he reached the Grandmother’s America, roadside America.
Carol Highsmith: Yeah.
A Ockershausen: That’s your Grandad.
Carol Highsmith: Yeah. No, I mean, it was just in my family. I mean, it was just in our blood really, almost.
A Ockershausen: And you went to a defunct Parsons College.
Carol Highsmith: I did. I went to Parsons College.
A Ockershausen: In Fairfield, Iowa.
Carol Highsmith: Now, Parsons College…
A Ockershausen: What did somebody merge them?
Carol Highsmith: No, no. Here’s the deal. Okay, because I was very wild in high school. I went to a private school and didn’t really apply myself very well. So, my dad kind of paid my way into Parsons College. It was all wealthy kids, okay? And, it was written up in Life Magazine as the wildest college in America and so, I loved it. Of course I loved it. How could I not love it?
So, you couldn’t go from Parsons College to just some normal job. You had to stay with it and that’s why WMAL was so perfect.
A Ockershausen: You were part of a family and the family adopted you and vice versa.
Carol Highsmith: Well, I had to have fun and we had a ball.
A Ockershausen: But, why would you pick Washington because you had all this experience across the great hinter land.
Carol Highsmith: Yeah.
A Ockershausen: But you ended up in Philadelphia with KYW?
Peters, Griffin, Windward (PGW), NY, NY | KYW, Philadephia, PA | WMAL, Washington DC
Carol Highsmith: KYW. Yeah well, I worked in New York when I was 21.
A Ockershausen: What’d you do in New York?
Carol Highsmith: I was with a television, radio rep firm.
A Ockershausen: Oh, I got it. Sure.
Carol Highsmith: Yeah, so that was fun.
A Ockershausen: What was the name of your firm?
Carol Highsmith: Peters, Griffin, and Woodward.
A Ockershausen: Ah, PGW.
Carol Highsmith: Yeah.
A Ockershausen: I knew them quite well.
Carol Highsmith: I just loved it. I was 21, wet behind the ears. People used to say to me, “Where’s Minneapolis?” I thought I was from someplace important, well maybe not.
A Ockershausen: A lot of people didn’t know.
Carol Highsmith: Nobody knew where I was from, but anyway …
A Ockershausen: PGW was a big outfit.
Carol Highsmith: So, PGW was enormous and I learned a lot from that.
A Ockershausen: Have a great experience.
Carol Highsmith: I loved being in New York. Then I moved on to Philadelphia and worked for channel 17 and then went on to KYW, and that’s where I started sales. And, you know, it was just a natural for me. I mean, I love sales.
Then, I decided to leave Philadelphia and that’s when I came down here.
A Ockershausen: But you started in sales in Philadelphia?
Carol Highsmith: I did.
A Ockershausen: But you weren’t in sales at PGW. In research?
Carol Highsmith: Yes, I was just starting out.
A Ockershausen: Okay.
Carol Highsmith: Really, I was just so …
A Ockershausen: A great experience though.
Carol Highsmith: I went to apply for the job and the woman said, “Well, what are your credentials?” I said, “Well, I have two hands.” She said, “You’re hired.”
A Ockershausen: That’s a break for you. So, you come to Washington and you get into this mad house and through a contact that you made as part of your life here in Washington … I don’t want to say this in the way it sounds, but I’ll say it anyway, it’s like you started a new life.
Carol Highsmith: I really kind of did.
A Ockershausen: Because of Washington.
How It All Started – Russia
Carol Highsmith: I did. I won a trip to Russia through a sales contest. Actually, Russia and China.
A Ockershausen: You’re incredible.
Carol Highsmith: Ain’t I a riot.
A Ockershausen: You were winning everything.
Carol Highsmith: And I was able to put together my own deals. I’m the queen of deals.
A Ockershausen: You’re a manipulator.
Carol Highsmith: I really am. So, anyway, I went to Russia and a friend of mine handed me a camera before I left.
A Ockershausen: Wow.
Carol Highsmith: And, of course, you couldn’t take any bad photograph over there because it was fascinating.
A Ockershausen: That was your first experience?
Carol Highsmith: That was.
A Ockershausen: As a photographer.
Carol Highsmith: And I went all the way out to Siberia and so …
A Ockershausen: Alone?
Carol Highsmith: I just click, click, click. Well, I was with a group. You didn’t go to Russia by yourself, no you did not.
A Ockershausen: Not then, right.
Carol Highsmith: And they followed you everywhere you went, it was fascinating.
A Ockershausen: Oh, I’m sure. To get to Siberia?
Carol Highsmith: Oh, are you kidding me? I loved every moment.
A Ockershausen: By train, of course.
Carol Highsmith: By train, by train, absolutely. It had just opened up, but they were still following you everywhere you went.
A Ockershausen: This is in the late 80s?
Carol Highsmith: That was, actually, no. It was in the early 80s.
A Ockershausen: Well, you were still here at WMAL.
Carol Highsmith: Yes, I was. I was still here. Actually, it might have even been the late 70s. It had just opened up.
A Ockershausen: I got you.
Carol Highsmith: And then I went to China and that was same thing. I took a lot of photographs.
A Ockershausen: But you were doing that as an individual just having a good time.
Corcoran School of Photography Night School
Carol Highsmith: I was. And then I started going to the Corcoran School of Photography at night.
A Ockershausen: While you were here at WMAL?
Carol Highsmith: While I was, and then WMAL actually helped pay for that. They helped pay for that and also I went to American University and I wrote my own photography program. They let me do that.
A Ockershausen: Yeah.
Carol Highsmith: Anyways, so WMAL continued to …
A Ockershausen: Well, who owned us then, Disney? ABC, I think.
Carol Highsmith: ABC.
A Ockershausen: Yeah. They were very generous in their employees getting further education.
Carol Highsmith: I know. I actually graduated from American University because of that. So, you know, I just went to night school. It was fabulous.
A Ockershausen: Right. You worked hard, sold a lot, made a lot of money.
Board of Trade | Oliver Carr | Willard Hotel History
Carol Highsmith: Anyway, one day, because of you, I was also welcomed into the Washington Board of Trade.
A Ockershausen: A magnificent . . .
Carol Highsmith: And, met Oliver Carr and I said to him one day, “Gee whiz, I would love to get into the Willard Hotel and just see what it looks like.” So, he opened it up for me and it was like a war zone. Oh, my god. It was horrible. And so, I took photographs in there with rats the size of cats and so on and so forth.
A Ockershausen: When they were doing the rebuilding?
Carol Highsmith: Before anyone got in there … Two years, I spent learning photography in the Willard Hotel.
A Ockershausen: Where does Bud Doggett come into this story? Did he introduce you to Ollie or is he just around or somewhere?
Carol Highsmith: No, he was always a friend, he used to call me all the time.
A Ockershausen: Absolutely. But, Ollie was the man.
Carol Highsmith: Ollie was really the man and I still know him very well and I still work for his company.
A Ockershausen: As a matter of fact, I’ve said to Janice.
Carol Highsmith: So, I was at his 90th birthday.
A Ockershausen: I’m gonna call him and ask him to be on Our Town. He’ll do it because we were friends from way, way back.
Carol Highsmith: Oh, he’ll do it.
A Ockershausen: He’s got triplets now, of course. So, they’re probably old now, aren’t they?
Carol Highsmith: They’re older. Yes.
A Ockershausen: Their 20s? I haven’t seen them.
Carol Highsmith: Probably. I would say they may be beyond that. But, anyway, Ollie’s great.
A Ockershausen: So, you’re shooting the Willard while it’s being rehabbed?
Carol Highsmith: I did and I taught myself photography there. So, it was just fascinating.
A Ockershausen: And you didn’t really come with any credentials other than yourself?
Carol Highsmith: None. Just me.
A Ockershausen: Right.
Carol Highsmith: So, Ollie let me then carry on and continue following the Willard renovation all the way through. So, that’s what I did. So, here I am, at the very … And then, I went on down Pennsylvania Avenue. Following all the restoration, including where the Trump Hotel is today.
A Ockershausen: Oh, the Post Office.
Carol Highsmith: Oh, that was, all of it … Now, listen to this. Okay, so all of it was just in a state of disarray. Pennsylvania Avenue hadn’t been touched since 1968, when President Nixon had a party in the Willard Hotel and gave away doors as door prizes. No, it was wild.
A Ockershausen: Doors from the hotel. But, that’s smart.
Carol Highsmith: No, it was just wild and then they had an auction, everybody ripped everything off. I mean, it was just trashed and, as I said, I had rats following me around.
A Ockershausen: Well, what had happened? What years did they empty the …
Carol Highsmith: 68. 1968 they closed it and the reason they closed it … Martin Luther King wrote his “I Have a Dream” speech there. He finished it up in there. Okay.
A Ockershausen: In the Willard?
Carol Highsmith: In the Willard and when he was killed, Washington burned. All around the Willard Hotel.
A Ockershausen: Oh, tell me about it.
Carol Highsmith: And the Willard Hotel was so desperate. Holiday Inn was kind of taking over at that time. The Willard Hotel covered their columns with vinyl to try to look like the Holiday Inn because they didn’t know what to do. Nobody was coming downtown. No one.
A Ockershausen: I know. Tell me about it.
Carol Highsmith: It was frightening. It was a frightening place. Washington D.C., two blocks from the White House, it was frightening.
A Ockershausen: They burned it. I know, we flew over it.
Carol Highsmith: They burned it.
A Ockershausen: Carol, when did Oliver buy the property?
Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation
Carol Highsmith: Okay, so there was another firm that came in … So, they started a quasi government foundation or corporation called Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation.
A Ockershausen: Development Corporation?
Carol Highsmith: Yeah.
A Ockershausen: Which, was Brolinner running that? Hank Berliner?
Carol Highsmith: Yes, Hank Berliner was running it and it was, kind of, half … Quasi government is what it was. But anyway, so they had some problems, they had someone who was going to restore it and then he got involved and found out it was a lot of money to restore it. So, he didn’t.
And also, the fear of will anyone come.
A Ockershausen: Will they come back downtown?
Carol Highsmith: If you restore a four star hotel and no one comes, you’re dead. So, Oliver Carr really stuck his neck out to do that.
A Ockershausen: He sure did.
Carol Highsmith: And, it really was the beginning of the restoration of Pennsylvania Avenue. No question about it.
A Ockershausen: The development … It had to be. It was like the anchor. Hang the whole thing.
Impromptu Mary Martin and Carol Channing Photo Shoot
Carol Highsmith: So, I spent 17 years recording it. I went to Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation and I said, “Look it. You get me aerials, I wanted aerial views. I want all of it and I will do this for almost nothing.” And so I did it. I did this. I did the old post office where the Trump Hotel is now. I went down to, believe it or not, Matthew Brady, the Civil War photographer’s old studio where he photographed Lincoln. Sears bought it and they hired me to come in and do the glory shots of it.
But anyway, so I follow the Willard. Right? All the way through to opening. The night before opening, I hear this knock on the door, we’re working all night to do the glory shots of the Willard Hotel. It’s Mary Martin and Carol Channing knocking on the door.
I look out, I go, “Oh.” Mary Martin, I saw you in Peter Pan and you …
A Ockershausen: And Carol Channing.
Carol Highsmith: Yes.
A Ockershausen: Oh my god. Super stars.
Carol Highsmith: And I opened the door and they said, “We were in a play in the National Theater and there was a bomb scare and we all had to get out and the whole audience wants our autograph, can you let us in?” I said, “I’ll let you in if you’ll let me take a photograph.” So, they sat for me and I took this photograph.
A Ockershausen: Wow.
Carol Highsmith: I was so excited.
A Ockershausen: Super stars.
Carol Highsmith: I didn’t know what to do with myself. So, while I’m in the Willard Hotel, the restorer of the Willard Hotel comes in, about two years after I’ve been there, with a mitt full of old photographs. And I said, “What’s that?” And he said, “They have no architectural drawings. This is the only way they can put the hotel back together again, is these photographs.” And he said, “They’re all down in the Library of Congress. I’ll bring you down there.”
So, I went down to the Library of Congress and I saw this woman’s collection.
A Ockershausen: That was your first introduction?
Carol Highsmith: That was. I didn’t even know what the Library of Congress was almost. I mean, what’s a Library of Congress? You know?
So, I went down there and I found out this woman, who was a blazing alcoholic …
A Ockershausen: A happy alcoholic.
Carol Highsmith: Who knew Teddy Roosevelt very well, okay?
A Ockershausen: Wow.
Carol Highsmith: And he sent her around and Andrew Carnegie sent her to the South to photograph the plantations of the south. That was the world she lived in. And, I saw her collection, which is kind of the cornerstone of the Library of Congress’ 15 million images.
And so, I went down there, I saw her collection of the Willard and I told the Library of Congress that day, I said, “You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna do what she did only during my lifetime.” And then I went home and I thought, “What have I done?”
I said, “Here’s the two things you’ve done that are dumb. You’re giving away your collection to the Library of Congress and you’re photographing America.” Excuse me, you’re taking photographs. You know, everybody’s taking photographs number one, and number two, you’re doing America? Well …
A Ockershausen: Here we are.
Carol Highsmith: Here we are, several years later. So, the Library of Congress staff looked at me like I was out of my mind and I probably was.
A Ockershausen: Well, let’s back up then.
Carol Highsmith: Okay, okay, more backing up.
A Ockershausen: Let’s go back. You leave WMAL, the photography bug has bitten you. Where does Ted Lanphair then, your manager, your best friend, your lover, come into the picture? Ted was our news director.
Opening Newly Renovated Willard Hotel
Carol Highsmith: Okay so, the Willard Hotel opens and they have a show of my work and this woman’s work and so, that’s when Ted and I started to, kind of, start dating again. He moved back to Washington from New Orleans and he started working in the government, Voice of America.
A Ockershausen: Right, he . . .
Carol Highsmith: And, somebody that knew us said, “You know, you ought to see Carol Highsmith.” And all he remembered of me is just like, whizz, because I would just go be …
A Ockershausen: Lightening.
Carol Highsmith: Yeah. I was always on my way out. He was in the news room and I was always on my way out to see someone and have fun.
A Ockershausen: Absolutely, you were going to make a sale or collect.
Carol Highsmith: Right.
A Ockershausen: That’s why you were successful. You were always on your way somewhere.
Carol Highsmith: I was.
A Ockershausen: This is Our Town, Andy Ockershausen. We’re talking to Carol Highsmith, one of the real stars of Our Town, and we’ll be right back.
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Announcer: You’re listening to Our Town.
A Ockershausen: This is Our Town. I’m Andy Ockershausen, I’m talking to Carol Highsmith, one of the retired WMAL stars. But thankfully, she did not leave Our Town. In fact, she almost took it over by doing some excellent work with her camera, which she got introduced to because she won a contest or something at WMAL. Had never taken a picture in your life until that trip, is that correct?
Carol Highsmith: That is correct.
A Ockershausen: And now you’re a world class photographer.
Recording America for Americans
Carol Highsmith: Well, I’m recording America. I’m doing what Dorothea Lange did in the 40s. In fact, I’m in that collection. The Library of Congress has 15 million images. It’s considered the most historic on earth and I’m very honored to say I’m featured in the top six collections of those 15 million images.
A Ockershausen: Wow.
Carol Highsmith: Along with Dorothea Lange and Matthew Brady, and Matthew Brady’s studio was also where I spent time documenting Pennsylvania Avenue. But, anyway-
A Ockershausen: Our Town. Pennsylvania Avenue is Our Town. Then you went to the other end of Capitol Hill? So you’ve covered us on both sides, right? The Library of Congress is on Capitol Hill-
Carol Highsmith: Right.
A Ockershausen: But the Willard is next to the White House.
Carol Highsmith: Well, I also photographed Union Station. I spent 17 years documenting the restoration of Pennsylvania Avenue and then-
A Ockershausen: It’s still going on.
Carol Highsmith: Oh, I know it is. I realize that. In so many ways, I mean the Trump Hotel is a very good case in point.
A Ockershausen: Oh, I know.
Carol Highsmith: Now I work for General Services Administration all over the country too. But then I went on to Union Station, documented all of Union Station, the whole restoration. Then I went to the management Union Station. I said, “Why don’t you do a book?” Because the Willard Hotel had opened without a book, and people called me from all over the world. The Washington Post photographed me photographing all of the employees of the Willard Hotel on opening day. So that’s crazy. It was nuts, you had to have a book.
So anyway, I went to them. They said, “Well, we don’t do books.” I said, “Okay, I’ll become a publisher and I’ll do a book.” So I did.
A Ockershausen: Oh, good for you.
Carol Highsmith: The opening day I sold about 10000 copies of that book.
A Ockershausen: I knew it. I knew you’d bamboozle somebody, Highsmith. Carol, the things you have done and now reminds me of what was the great radio show that was on CBS about Charles Kuralt?
Carol Highsmith: Yes, Sunday Morning-
A Ockershausen: He traveled America on the back roads.
Carol Highsmith: Yeah, that’s right. Absolutely he did.
A Ockershausen: I think about you when I hear about that.
Carol Highsmith: I think about him also-
A Ockershausen: Oh my god.
Carol Highsmith: And what it must have been like for him back then even. What it’s like for me now. How much fun it is.
A Ockershausen: Have you done the back roads, too? America’s not freeways, they’re roads.
Photographing the Back Roads of America
Carol Highsmith: You have to understand something, my whole life really, me and Ted, is back roads of America. I’ve spent Lincoln Highway, Route 66 I’ve done to death. Small towns. It’s rural America that I’m interested in. I do obviously, city neighborhoods and New York and everybody, everything, but I’m also very interested in our back roads and our weenie bean towns I call them. They’re gorgeous. It is America. That is what America-
A Ockershausen: Land of the great country, absolutely.
Carol Highsmith: Oh, man.
A Ockershausen: You’re able to photograph it and do something with those photographs.
Carol Highsmith: Well, I’m donating-
A Ockershausen: And the Library is gonna have an exhibit I hope of America.
Carol Highsmith: What I’m doing is I’m donating my entire collection of photographs. I have gone from working in large format, 4 by 5 film. I am now using the highest digital camera made on Earth.
A Ockershausen: Wow.
Carol Highsmith: And I bought it. That’s what I come to the map with. The real important aspect of this is that it is not for now I’m doing this. It’s for 1000 years from now, or 5000 years from now.
A Ockershausen: Future.
Carol Highsmith: That is correct. There’s no better place to give your work than the Library of Congress. That’s what they do. They do preservation.
A Ockershausen: Right.
Carol Highsmith: So when I hate to tell you, your cell phone is over and the images on your cell phone are gone because I’ve lived enough life to know things change.
A Ockershausen: Tell me about.
Carol Highsmith: You know. Remember when we started and video was real thick? All of those … You can’t even get a video recorder, anything to read it at this point.
A Ockershausen: Carol, it passed me by years ago. I have a tough time with the cell phones.
Carol Highsmith: Yeah.
A Ockershausen: But I didn’t grow up with it, so I did not know it.
Carol Highsmith: So technology is going to change, and as it does-
A Ockershausen: It changes every day.
Carol Highsmith: Well it changes every day and we’re living in this fast paced who knows what. What I’m saying is, so that’s the importance of me giving it to some place that I know many thousands of years from now it can be read. What did America look like during this time? You know there are a lot of, let me just say this-
A Ockershausen: What a history.
Carol Highsmith: There’s a lot of towns that you can go into where you can still see buildings that were originally there in the very beginning of the town. Even here, even Washington D.C.
A Ockershausen: Oh absolutely, Our Town’s got a lot of history.
Carol Highsmith: It does and so just riding down 13th street, all those row houses. How long have they been there? All of it. I’m following in the footsteps of a woman who worked at the turn of the last century, Frances Benjamin Johnston. She’s very famous. She lived on 13th street. I ride by where her house used to be and I think, “She saw what I’m seeing. 13th street.”
A Ockershausen: That’s where I was born-
Carol Highsmith: Was it?
A Ockershausen: 327 13th street.
Carol Highsmith: Oh I love it-
A Ockershausen: A row house.
Carol Highsmith: Yes.
A Ockershausen: We’re watching a show on HGTV and the people are moving this little skinny house. I said, “What in the world, is that a row house?” Then I said, “I grew up in a row house. What am I saying? That’s all there was.” You can almost reach your arms out and touch both sides of it. Not quite.
Carol Highsmith: Oh it’s fabulous.
A Ockershausen: But anyway Carol, what you’re doing for America is sensational, and what you’re doing for our future … I ask this question of Janice, she didn’t know. Janice is my producer, my boss. “Are you videographer?”
Carol Highsmith: Videographer? No. I tell you what I do. I take mainly still photographs, that’s all I take actually.
A Ockershausen: Right.
Photographs You Can Study
Carol Highsmith: Why? That is what I do. Because, I feel that it’s really important to be able to study those. So if it took a photograph of you right now, I could study the glasses you wear, your haircut, what shirt you have on. In 1000 years from now, that might be quite fascinating. That’s why I take stills.
A Ockershausen: Because you can study them, I like that.
Carol Highsmith: So that you can stop and you can look and you can look into them and study them.
Janice Iacona Ockershausen: You’re documenting America.
Carol Highsmith: I’m documenting the United States. I just finished Colorado, the entire states of Colorado, Wyoming-
A Ockershausen: Wow.
Carol Highsmith: California, Texas. I’ve been funded to do all of these states. Alabama-
A Ockershausen: You just drive from city to city, you and Ted?
Carol Highsmith: We decide from ranches, I mean what’s in Colorado? It’s never ending. We were there for a year. In Wyoming and colorado, I was there for a year. I did all the seasons. Yellowstone National Park. Denver. What are steam drains? They’re still running-
A Ockershausen: You’re on a mission to get it all done, all 50?
Carol Highsmith: My mission is to finish photographing America. What’s valuable that I have to bring to the plate is that I can also handle interiors. A lot of photographers don’t know how to photograph an interior. I kind of started photographing interiors from the Willard Hotel.
A Ockershausen: Right.
Carol Highsmith: So I can go into the President’s mansion, or whatever and photograph it and it looks good, hopefully.
A Ockershausen: Because you’ve got experience.
Carol Highsmith: Yes, because I have experience and I’m on this very high end camera, which is helpful. I’m interested in a visual study of our nation that people can-
A Ockershausen: You’re doing this for the future.
Carol Highsmith: I’m doing it for the future.
A Ockershausen: And speaking of that, the future is now and this is Our Town with Carol Highsmith.
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Announcer: You’re listening to Our Town with Andy Ockershausen. Brought to you by Best Bark Communications.
A Ockershausen: This is Andy Ockershausen. I’m having a wonderful conversation with a WMALer Carol Highsmith and reading about your awards and the things you have done the Jefferson Memorial image for the USPS, exclusive photographer for the American Institute of Architect. In two ten she photographed Alabama as the first state in her 21st Century America Project. Carol, this goes on and on and on. In 2011, the Library of Congress acquired 6500 images from Carol’s collection of her work in America that dates from 1980 to 2001. You are prolific.
Carol Highsmith: No-
A Ockershausen: That’s just a sample of some of things-
Carol Highsmith: I have about 42000 up there now.
A Ockershausen: Is that right?
Carol Highsmith: But the real key, Andy, is that anyone in the entire Earth can download these and use them.
A Ockershausen: That’s the first time that’s ever been possible?
Promoting and Preserving America Through the Camera Lens
Carol Highsmith: It promotes America and that’s what I’m interested in doing. You know so many people take photographs that are just kind of like their thumb is in it half the time, so my task is to show it in a wonderful way. The way it should be seen. The way I see America.
A Ockershausen: And that’s the real America, what you’re doing-
Carol Highsmith: Yes, it is.
A Ockershausen: It’s the main road, but Carol, you have so many experiences. We were talking about you, and you mentioned you’re very careful with what you eat on the road because you never know when you go from state to state. That’s something I hadn’t even thought about, but that’s very important that you’re ready to photograph. You’re not doing this for any reason but you love it.
Carol Highsmith: Well I’m out there every day. I don’t remember the last day I’ve taken off. I’m out there usually 13 hours a day, certainly in the summer time I am. I walk 10 to 25,000 steps a day. I’m very careful about what I eat.
A Ockershausen: But that’s your life, of course.
Carol Highsmith: But it’s my life. It would be very easy to get into fast food and all that kind of stuff. I just won’t go there. I won’t do it.
A Ockershausen: You don’t know where that’s been.
Carol Highsmith: I’m just very careful, but because I want the energy. I want the energy that it takes to go out and I’m going to be in very hot weather this summer, I know it. I’ll probably lose 30 pounds just off that, yay.
A Ockershausen: Is your summer all laid out?
Carol Highsmith: All laid out, almost. We’re leaving a little bit of wiggle room just in case we want to go here, there, and everything. I have a research director. I’ll say to him, “Okay, I want this town, that town, a lot of small towns. I want Pentecostal churches in Mississippi. I’m doing Mississippi. I want”-
A Ockershausen: You pick the states and let them-
Carol Highsmith: No, the states have been funded. When the states get funded and can pick up our hotel, Ted as you know goes with me-
A Ockershausen: It’s expensive.
Carol Highsmith: We can cover our expenses, then I go do the state. I’m doing six states this year. So Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia. Then I probably am coming back doing New Jersey and on to Oregon and Washington. I have a lot of work. The key is that I love it. We love it, Ted and I.
A Ockershausen: Oh, sure. This is not work to you.
Carol Highsmith: No, it’s so much fun. I’ve had incredible experiences. I went to Las Vegas. I went to Las Vegas to do a book for Random House. Random House sent me out first. That’s how I got to really tour America-
A Ockershausen: Through Random House?
Carol Highsmith: Through Random House. They redid a book series. They sent me out. I called the people in Las Vegas. I said, “I’d like to come out and do a book for Random House.” They yawned and said, “Well that’s nice.” Click. That was the end of that. I called them in a few more months and they said that they didn’t care because they had so much press. Finally, I wrote, who was the man who wrote My Way for Frank Sinatra, Paul Anka. He was gonna appear there. I wrote Paul Anka and I said, “Okay, Paul. I’m coming to Las Vegas and if you would let me take photographs of you,” I said, “I’d promise not to swoon. Even though you were just my all and everything when I was little.” He thought it was the funniest email he’d ever received and he let me come. He spent five hours with me.
A Ockershausen: Wow.
Siegfried & Roy | David Feld | The Circus
Carol Highsmith: When I finished with Paul Anka, he said, “Well, who else are you photographing?” I said, “Nobody else will respond to me.” He said, “When I finish tonight, in the morning they’ll all be calling you.” So I photographed Siegfried & Roy. I was on the stage with them and their tigers, went to their private apartment with David Feld who owns the Circus as you know. That’s the next story-
A Ockershausen: Local guy from Our Town.
Carol Highsmith: Yeah that’s right. So he was in the apartment with me, with Siegfried, and Roy. We get the lion all set up and Siegfried and Roy are on either side-
A Ockershausen: What happened to the tiger?
Carol Highsmith: Well the tigers were on stage with them. I also did that. But this was in their private apartment. So I was doing an image for the book. I get them all set up and then lion decided he wanted to take out Siegfried’s shoulder. He went, “mwaaaaah,” and Siegfried kind of moved over this way. I thought, “Oh, what am I going to do?”
A Ockershausen: You were just watching the lion.
Carol Highsmith: Anyway, finally he settled down and we got the photograph and it was wonderful. I recently however decided, I also decide things, so the elephants are leaving the Circus. Whoa, that’s enormous. I call the Circus. I said, “Look I have to record this. This is for the Library of Congress. This is for 100 years from now.”
“And people will be fascinated that the elephants were every in the circus. I have to photograph them on this 100 megapixel camera.” So they let me come in, do two or three shows-
A Ockershausen: Where did you do it? In Sarasota?
Carol Highsmith: No, I did it here actually-
A Ockershausen: On the road?
Carol Highsmith: When they were here.
A Ockershausen: Oh I got you. Oh the Felds would set that up for you.
Carol Highsmith: Yup-
A Ockershausen: That’s still a controversy, is it? I guess they gave into it didn’t they?
Carol Highsmith: Well, they let them go. They let the lions-
A Ockershausen: Felds decided they’re not going to have them anymore.
Carol Highsmith: Well the controversy is the Circus is closing.
A Ockershausen: I know, America is losing something so deep into our psyche.
Carol Highsmith: Oh man.
A Ockershausen: And it’s al because of the modern world.
Carol Highsmith: It’s wild.
A Ockershausen: What do you call it? Politically correct.
Carol Highsmith: Well, you move on. That’s why it’s so important to visually document it.
A Ockershausen: Absolutely, have it for your record.
Carol Highsmith: Because if you didn’t … Obviously everybody’s taking photographs everywhere you go, but that doesn’t mean these photographs are gonna be seen or around when the cell phone-
A Ockershausen: This will all be a lifetime record they’re putting in the Library?
Carol Highsmith: It’ll be a lifetime record. That’s the key and done correctly. That’s the most important piece of it.
A Ockershausen: You’re a professional.
Carol Highsmith: Well, I hope so. I learned from the master-
A Ockershausen: Oh, not from me.
Carol, where is that going to be? The Library of Congress the Circus? Did you give the Felds copies of what you did?
Carol Highsmith: I haven’t yet, but I’m about ready to. I haven’t really actually totally finished the collection that I did.
A Ockershausen: Okay.
Carol Highsmith: I photograph the states, the cities, the towns, the little weenie bean towns-
A Ockershausen: The people.
Carol Highsmith: The people, the road, and the Library of Congress never says to me, “Now, now, now don’t do this don’t do that.” Everything is … what’s America? It’s a million things. It’s our national parks, it’s our little towns-
A Ockershausen: Everything.
Carol Highsmith: It’s our Route 66-
A Ockershausen: It was our circus, too.
Carol Highsmith: It was our circus. That’s why it’s so important to record it-
A Ockershausen: You’ve got to get it on record.
World Trade Center
Carol Highsmith: You have to get it … I flew 9/11. I flew the World Trade Center from New Jersey on a perfectly beautiful day and put it in the can, large format film. Two months later, gone. Did I know? Sometimes I don’t know what will be there and what won’t. The most important thing is that I do it. That I photograph.
A Ockershausen: So you have those towers on still photographs from the New Jersey shore?
Carol Highsmith: I do.
A Ockershausen: That’s in the Library of Congress-
Carol Highsmith: From the air. Aerial.
A Ockershausen: Oh you’re in an airplane?
Carol Highsmith: I was in a helicopter.
A Ockershausen: And that’s now in the Library of Congress?
Carol Highsmith: It is, yes. So anybody from all over the world, and billions of people come on their website all the time.
A Ockershausen: Oh I’m sure of that.
Carol Highsmith: They’re enormous. There they are. America. City-
A Ockershausen: It was just happenstance. You weren’t involved with the attackers were you?
Carol Highsmith: No, it was happenstance. A lot of things are happenstance.
A Ockershausen: That’s true when you’re taking pictures.
Carol Highsmith: I take things. Did I know when I took the elephants the circus would be closing? No, I didn’t know that.
A Ockershausen: You were just doing it as a good story.
Carol Highsmith: I knew the elephants were leaving, but I thought-
A Ockershausen: That they’d keep the circus alive.
Carol Highsmith: Certainly, but then I knew, “Gee, the tigers probably had to be next.” I’d have to go down and get those.
A Ockershausen: All the wild animals.
Carol Highsmith: In the meanwhile-
A Ockershausen: Politically correct.
On the Demise of The Circus
Carol Highsmith: They knew that it eventually … People just stopped coming. In the meanwhile, people drove the train to get ride of the elephants off … I means it’s all a come around go around-
A Ockershausen: Did you shoot them getting on and off the train?
Carol Highsmith: I didn’t-
A Ockershausen: They used to right here in Washington, they were two places I would go as a young child to watch the circus unload off of the trains and watch, they call them roustabouts that would put it in the peg. They’d have to put in the pegs that hold the tents. They would stand around a peg, like four guys with sledgehammers, and one at a time, it was a rhythm, boom-boom-boom
Carol Highsmith: How fun.
A Ockershausen: That would have been a great photo-
Carol Highsmith: I know.
A Ockershausen: It’s in my mind somewhere-
Carol Highsmith: Somebody probably took photographs of that.
A Ockershausen: That’s the way they get the stuff in the ground.
Carol Highsmith: That’s the Library of Congress, 15 millions images. They have a lot of that type of thing-
A Ockershausen: I’m sure they do. It was an art form.
Carol Highsmith: They said in the Dorothea Lange file for instance, same collection I’m in, that some of her images tell a tale different than what somebody might have told. Because it’s a visual document, it tells a different story sometimes.
A Ockershausen: Well whatever it was it has to be real because here it is.
Carol Highsmith: So anyway I’ve been-
A Ockershausen: It might not have been legitimate, but it was real.
Carol Highsmith: I’ve been funded either by wealthy people or the Library of Congress to do many of the states.
A Ockershausen: Right.
Carol Highsmith: I’m still searching for funding to finish it up. I’ll probably be working for another 10 years.
A Ockershausen: Wow, oh you’ve got a lot more time than that, Carol. How about another 50 years? Go for the gold.
Carol Highsmith: Well, I love it so much, I’ll tell you, it would be very hard for me to give it up. I must admit-
A Ockershausen: I believe it. It’s your life-
Carol Highsmith: It is my life.
A Ockershausen: Every day is another challenge-
Carol Highsmith: And without Ted Lanphair I don’t know what I would be. He drives and he does all the writing-
A Ockershausen: Well he’s enjoying it too.
Carol Highsmith: Oh, we both just love it.
A Ockershausen: He’s a brilliant guy, writer-
Carol Highsmith: Oh he is, and he helps me so much. Just in deciding what we’re going to photograph and how we’re going to go at it, and how we’re going to go from place to place. Can you imagine going from … I’m going down to do some things down in South Carolina and then going and photographing Jimmy Carter teaching Sunday School-
A Ockershausen: Peanuts!
Carol Highsmith: Yeah, peanuts. And then the drive along the way, how fun. It’s just great
Janice Iacona Ockershausen: Can I ask a question?
Carol Highsmith: Yeah.
Janice Iacona Ockershausen: Carol, do you have a favorite time of day?
Carol Highsmith: No, I just love all of it. Dusk is fun. Early early morning is fun. Middle of the day is fun, being out in the fields. Whatever, it just depends on what the deal is, where you are, what you’re doing.
A Ockershausen: It’s our world, is it?
Carol Highsmith: It is.
A Ockershausen: And it’s Our Town and Carol Highsmith, you’re such an important part of Our Town. I’m so glad you gave up Philly for us. So glad you discovered WMAL and all of the great things you did for us. We just wish you nothing but the best, and the same for Ted. I can’t say anymore than thank you for Our Town.
Carol Highsmith: Well thank you for all you’ve taught me, Andy. I mean we learned a lot from you. If you only knew. Without our leader, what would we have done? I don’t know.
A Ockershausen: Carol, I was just fortunate to have people that everybody smiled and that’s what it’s all about. Thank you Carol Highsmith. This has been Our Town and wonderful discussion, if you don’t go to the Library of Congress and see these exhibits, you’re making a huge mistake. Thank you.
Carol Highsmith: You can do it online.
Janice Iacona Ockershausen: Give us your online address.
Carol Highsmith: Well it’s Library of Congress Prints and Photographs. You can go and just see it. Then I’m in the top six, so I’m shown right in the top.
Janice Iacona Ockershausen: Thank you.
Carol Highsmith: Thank you.
A Ockershausen: Carol, you’re wonderful.
Carol Highsmith: Appreciate it.
A Ockershausen: This has been Our Town with Andy O.
Announcer: You’ve been listening to Our Town season 2 presented by GEICO, our hometown favorite, with your host Andy Ockershausen. New Our Town episodes are released each Tuesday and Thursday. Drop us a line with your comments or suggestions. See us on Facebook or visit our website at ourtowndc.com. Our special thanks to Ken Hunter, our technical director, and WMAL RADIO in Washington D.C. for hosting our podcast. Thanks to GEICO, 15 minutes can save you 15% or more on car insurance.