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If you watched the first two hours of “Why Louisiana Ain’t Mississippi … or Any Place Else!” on Sunday night, you know that there’s a lot of ground to cover.
The state’s history of enslavement, its politics and its music will be explored on the final two hours of the miniseries at 7 p.m. Monday on WLPB, Channel 27.
Echoing the specialness of Louisiana are the captivating photographs by visual documentarian Carol M. Highsmith in the series’ compantion book.
“The book will allow you to slow down a bit and truly study each place more carefully and share it with everyone,” North Carolinian Highsmith said. “What really makes it amazing is that all of the images will go to the Library of Congress for the ages.”
Here, Highsmith discusses her career, lengthy association with the LOC and love for Louisiana.
What led you to photography and specifically to photographing each state to the extent that you have?
I have been working on my photographic study of America since 1980. After traveling the world with a camera that a client gave me (a Pentax K1000), I started to learn photography traveling to Russia, including Siberia; China, all of it; and Europe many times. It made me realize how special my own country was.
I decided to start photography school at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. I wanted to document the city because it was going through a huge renovation right down on Pennsylvania Avenue – America’s Main Street.
When I saw the photographs of early-20th century photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston, who had donated her entire collection to the Library of Congress, the moment changed my life.
I told the staff at the Library of Congress that day I was going to follow in her (Johnston’s) footsteps. I think they thought I was out of my mind.
I documented the rebuilding of Pennsylvania Avenue and the surrounding area for 17 years. During this time, I got a deal for a Random House book series about the American states, regions and cities. My husband, Ted Landphair, a writer, and I started on our journey across America for three years working on the books. I fell in love with photography and America. I was the modern-day Frances Benjamin Johnston and I was going to do this for the rest of my life.
Along the way, I expanded my goal to capturing images of each and every state. Next year, I will finish this study of our great land when I complete work in Hawaii and Alaska. I will have almost 100,000 images of the entire United States in my collection at the Library of Congress.
What inspired you to donate your life’s work to the Library of Congress?
The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world and the 15 million-image photographic collection is the most historic on earth. There is no better place to have this collection than an institution that excels in preservation.
It also allows people from all over the world to see the images online and download different sizes of all the images in my collection. My work is “for the ages” and I want total access to it for researchers and school children and anyone who wants to study this beautiful country.
I know that you shot in Louisiana previously. Do you remember when that was, and what changes stood out while photographing sites for the LPB book?
I have been taking images of Louisiana since the ’80s. I captured Chris Owens, Dr. John, Pete Fountain, Ronnie Cole, John Boutte and many Mardi Gras parades. I’ll be honest, there hasn’t been much change, except after Katrina.
Thank goodness, change has not been allowed. I was here after the hurricane taking aerials and driving around the Ninth Ward, so that definitely brought some sad change.
I finally made it to the Jazz Fest when I visited this time, and captured Irma Thomas singing her heart out. And the Mardi Gras Indians posed for me and I was invited to a couple of balls. I’ve worked in the cemeteries and even ventured out to Mamou for that Mardi Gras experience.
Would you have a favorite(s) among your Louisiana photos, or do you shoot too many for that to be possible?
One very special experience I had in taking images for the book was going up in a helicopter and capturing aerials of not only New Orleans, but so much else. We traveled all the way down to the marshes and saw plenty of shrimp boats and oil rigs. We were up for four hours on the most perfect day I have ever experienced.
What will you remember most about Louisiana?
How can you explain Louisiana? Where else in America has a daily show of puffy clouds, a movie set of historic places from the French Quarter to palatial plantations, festivals that never stop from the Frog to the Tomato, and even gumbo one? Music coming out of every door and not just any music either! Characters wandering around like they own the place and Second line bands march around and make you want to follow.
It is so much fun to be here and see all the people singing and dancing. The food is not your garden variety … who else has gumbo, Lucky Dogs, jambalaya, beignets, po-boys, crawfish boils, muffulettas, red beans and rice? And on and on and on.
There is no one that knows America like me and my husband Ted Landphair. We have traveled it for thousands and thousands of miles for years and years. And just like this book says … Louisiana “Ain’t” like any place else … anywhere! Because we have experienced visiting all of America, we absolutely know how fabulous Louisiana is and we understand why people from all over the world love it.