200 Years of America with Carol Highsmith
Posted May 13, 2019
“200 Years of America with Carol Highsmith”
By Luisa Kay Reyes
When photographer Carol Highsmith arrived in south Alabama in 2010, she had packed for the state’s humid subtropical climate. Instead, she found herself capturing images of Mobile’s Mardi Gras celebrations in freezing 21 degree weather. Following a career that included photographic tours of Hawaii, Ireland, and other places for Random House, she turned her attention to doing an in-depth study of the state of Alabama, the first in her “This is America” study. She discovered that “Alabama is such a shining star of the American South and American history.” With Mobile, home of the oldest annual carnival celebration in the United States; Monroeville, home of two American literary giants; Selma, home of the Civil Rights era “Selma-to-Montgomery” march; and Muscle Shoals, home of popular American hits of the 1960s, there is little wonder why Highsmith envisioned the Yellowhammer State as a unique, yet integral part of America.
Though Highsmith grew up in Minneapolis, summers spent visiting her grandmothers instilled in her an appreciation for Alabama’s southern character. The white sandy beaches of Gulf Shores, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, Rickwood Field (the oldest professional baseball park in America), and Huntsville’s cutting edge aerospace technology all make Alabama uniquely American and the “epitome of the South.”
When the Library of Congress established a rare, one-person archive of Carol Highsmith’s lifework (more than 100,000 royalty-free images), this collection included several thousand photographs from Highsmith’s time in Alabama. She feels strongly about her “heartfelt commitment to document the living history and built environment of our times.” There was never a day while she was photographing in the Yellowhammer State when she thought, “it was just okay.” On the contrary, every day while she was capturing images of Alabama, she would wake up at dawn and ride the roads finding that in Alabama every day was “more fascinating” than the previous one. In fact, after 27 years of photography, she still dreams about her wonderful time spent in Alabama and all that experience offered. For Highsmith, there is “nothing like Spring in Alabama. The flowers bloom, the birds sing.” With camera in tow, she was able to capture images of the Bellingrath Gardens when all the azaleas were in bloom.
One night in Montgomery proved to be especially memorable for Highsmith during her photographic tour of Alabama. It was a night of music and she got to hear Percy Sledge perform “When a Man Loves a Woman” like never before. She also heard George Jones sing with his trademark voice as well. While listening to these famous performers, it dawned on her that all of her favorite music was from Alabama. It was like “reliving her childhood.” She soon found herself photographing Percy Sledge and Rick Hall, founder of FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. By the mid-1960s, this studio was a focal point for musicians of various stripes, including the Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, Solomon Burke, and Percy Sledge. Aretha Franklin even credited Rick Hall with helping her find her groove as the “Queen of Soul.”
Highsmith’s work is known for its clarity, high quality, and fine detail. In March 2009, she was one of four women profiled by the Library of Congress. She shares the honor of being recognized during Women’s History Month with such notables as Susan B. Anthony and Sandra Day O’Connor (citation). Her advice to aspiring photographers in Alabama is to realize that “you can go in your own backyard and make beautiful photographs” because Alabama is very picturesque. Highsmith also encourages photographers to be creative: “If you think you don’t have anything, look around.”
Highsmith enjoyed her time photographing Alabama and experiencing a diverse range of cultural experiences like attending a college football game, observing the rattlesnake rodeo in Opp, indulging in gumbo, and witnessing a dove hunt. In reflecting on her time in Alabama, Carol Highsmith asks, “How could you not burst with pride for this state? You should be so proud of Alabama, you burst.”
Fine Art America. “About Carol M. Highsmith.” Accessed December 5, 2018. https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/carol-highsmith.html?tab=about
HeraldNet.com. “Rick Hall, the Father of the Muscle Shoals Sound, Dies at 85.” Accessed December 5, 2018. https://www.heraldnet.com/life/rick-hall-the-father-of-the-muscle-shoals-sound-dies-at-85/
“This is Alabama.” Accessed September 2, 2015. www.thisisalabama.us
*Highsmith's photos of Alabama are part of the George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Luisa Kay Reyes' pieces have been featured in The Raven Chronicles, The Windmill, The Foliate Oak, The Eastern Iowa Review, and other literary magazines. Her essay "Thank You" was the winner of the April 2017 memoir contest of The Dead Mule School Of Southern Literature. Her Christmas poem was a first-place winner in the 16th Annual Stark County District Library Poetry Contest. Additionally, her essay "My Border Crossing" received a Pushcart Prize nomination from Port Yonder Press. Two of her essays have been nominated for the Best of the Net anthology, and one of her essays was featured on The Dirty Spoon radio hour.