OFF THE DUSTY TRAIL
Photographer Carol M. Highsmith and the Foundation’s writer, blogger, and new president, Ted Landphair, are back in their Maryland home base from 4½ months on the road. Most of that time was spent in Texas, the latest site of Carol’s ongoing expeditions that are resulting in state-by-state visual records of the early 21st century. Those of you who follow her on Facebook have seen many examples of her images of this vast and extraordinary state.
Highsmith and Landphair are now completing work on the latest 265-page coffee-table book, this one about the Lone Star State, as a near-to-final piece of this study. We say near to final, because the pair will be returning to Texas briefly later this month to capture a few images that could not be collected during the timeframe of their visit. They will include photos of Jerry Jones’s sports palace in Dallas as well as photos from a Cowboys’ game, and it is likely that former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, will be available for a brief photo shoot as well.
Because of the distances between places, Texas was a logistical challenge, and the intrepid documentarians needed several trips to certain parts of the state, including two to far-off El Paso. But as in California, the effort was worth it, for they visited and photographed some places that even most Texans don’t know about. Hueco Tanks, for instance. These aren’t armored vehicles or glass-enclosed fish habitats. They are natural pocks in the earth up in mountainous far-west Texas, just below New Mexico. That’s fascinating in and of itself, but high among the rocks in this spectacular state park are some amazing pictographs, painted by ancient peoples. Some, regrettably, have been defaced by boorish visitors who think it’s a lark to bespoil a cultural treasure with graffiti. A few such treasures are undamaged and are now off-limits to unaccompanied visitors, but Carol photographed both the pristine and corrupted artwork.
Texas was full of other surprises — from a thriving Czech museum in Corsicana in Central Texas to a Louisianaesque swamp north of Beaumont, to a stunning array of neon art in burgeoning Austin. Few Americans realize that Texas, booming in the energy and technology sectors, is now home to six of the nation’s 20 largest cities. Did you know, for instance, that Houston is fourth, that San Antonio is larger than Dallas, or that El Paso and Fort Worth are larger than Denver or Boston or Washington, D.C.?
The Library of Congress is now processing some of the 5,000 or more images that Carol brought back from Texas; they’ll soon be available for your enjoyment and use, copyright-free, in the Library’s online catalog. There, Carol’s archive is ranked among the top 6 collections, alongside the work of Civil War master photographer Mathew Brady, Depression-era documentarian Dorothea Lange, and Carol’s beau ideal, pioneer female photographer Carol M. Highsmith.
NUTMEGS and the FEDERAL CITY
Carol M. Highsmith is also putting the final touches on three coffee-table books that will follow in the tradition of two other such volumes, about her work in Alabama and California. One will depict the best of her work in Texas. The others will dip back into images previously gathered in studies of Connecticut — the Nutmeg State, so named for the fragrant little nuts brought back to America by hardy Connecticut Yankee sailors from what were once called the Spice Islands (now the Malucca Islands of Indonesia) — and in the District of Columbia, where Carol has photographed thousands of images of grand federal buildings, monuments, and parks over 40 years. Carol’s photographic career began with a night-school study of Washington’s “hotel of presidents” — the grand Willard, where Mark Twain wrote and Julia Ward Howe composed and Martin Luther King, Jr., put the final touches on his “I Have a Dream” speech. Only the Willard was not so grand when Carol photographed it. It was a decrepit, empty shell, set for demolition, only to be saved by a last-ditch citizens’ effort called “Don’t Tear It Down.” Carol got the commission to follow its glorious renovation, the restoration of grimy Pennsylvania Avenue and Union Station, and the rest is, quite literally, history.