Carol (McKinney) Highsmith '64 Shares Wisdom with MA Students

Sara Jacobson

"I’m so proud of Minnehaha. It has always valued the arts - you're getting great training here,” acclaimed photographer Carol Highsmith ’64 told a group of Minnehaha Academy arts students. Describing herself as 'gregarious' and a ‘hot cake’ in high school (and voted “Most Mischievous”) she went on to tell students, “I learned a lot of valuable lessons here – I was bold and could take chances.  It helped me believe in myself no matter what, and to never take no for an answer.”

Photographer and Minnehaha alum Carol Highsmith (first row, center) visited with Minnehaha Academy arts students and faculty

Highsmith, who has made it her life’s work to document a changing America in the early 21st Century said about her career, “I got sucked in. Photography is in my soul.”  She recently spent time with Minnehaha high school students and shared stories about her life and career, while encouraging students to follow their passions.

America's Photographer

A self-described documentarian, Highsmith has been taking photos of disappearing landscapes for years -- wilderness, farms, small towns, buildings, just about everything.  Photo below courtesy of Library of Congress "Idaho Farm and Field," 2005.

She is hoping her photos will help people remember America from years gone by. In order to do so, she has donated her entire photographic collection to the U.S. Library of Congress, which is expected to grow to more than 100,000 images. The Library stated that her donation was, “one of the greatest acts of generosity in the history of the Library.” Her collection is one of the top six in the entire Library of Congress next to greats such as Dorthea Lange.

Frances Benjamin Johnston, another famous photographer in the early 1900s, was an inspiration to Highsmith.  Johnston had a passion for recording architectural history through photographs, including the famous Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C.  Johnston took photos of the ballroom when it was in its glory (early 1900s). Highsmith took after Johnston and photographed similar shots of the hotel, only when it was in decline (almost 80 years later). That refurbished hotel, now called the Willard Intercontinental, has a wonderfully documented history because of these photographers, and continues to this day to host guests and dignitaries alike.  Photos below courtesy of Library of Congress:  black and white photo by Johnston; color photo by Highsmith, 1984).

Jeremy Adamson, director of collections at the Library of Congress stated, “Highsmith’s color images are certainly of the highest technical and artistic quality. But more importantly, she has the uncanny ability to identify, focus on and capture for posterity the essential features of our social landscape and physical environment, both natural and man-made. A photograph by Carol Highsmith is a document of rare precision and beauty, revealing with exacting clarity the look and feel of people and places across our great nation.”

A Prolific Artist

Highsmith has published 50+ books featuring everything from significant buildings in our nation’s capital, to landscapes in states across the country. She recently spent time capturing Wyoming and Colorado, taking photos that represent the culture of life in the mountains. “I like to pick up scenes from all over the place,” she said. “You get me there, you give me access, and I’ll get a photo.”

She also reminisced about how times have changed since she first started taking photos. Years ago she packed and traveled with large, bulky equipment and struggled getting through airports with all her gear. Now, travel is easy, with one super powerful digital camera that can take 6,000 images in about an hour. “The biggest challenge now is editing all those photos,” she said. “Each image is agony to edit, but if it’s your work, it’s worth it.”

Highsmith’s talk with students was full of laughs, memories and encouragement. “I’ve been in your shoes; I know where you’re coming from,” she told the students. ”Just remember, life isn’t just about ‘me’ – it’s about ‘us’ and you are the ones to carry on America.”

  • Alumni
  • fine arts
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