Herman (1920-2009)

Herman died last night (12.28.09) in a nursing home a week before his 90th birthday. We've been photographing him since 1986 and he was one of the four subjects of our One Million Years is Three Seconds film and book project. In 2006 we attended a funeral with him in St. Nazianz and a few years later went in search of the giant rocks he remembered from his childhood that were distributed along the fence line of his property. He wanted to find them again, to touch them, to sit on them, and was able to describe them in detail. He was living in senior housing in the Village of St. Nazianz and his old farmstead was slowly collapsing all the while he told township officials he would repair it soon. It was razed in November 2009. We've been working to add subtitles to One Million Years because the thick Germanic Wisconsin dialects of a couple of the men were somewhat difficult to decipher, especially with the low-fi sound recording methods we used. We were almost finished with Herman's section of the film when we heard the news of his passing.


Aluminum Christmas Trees (1959-2009)

Most of the aluminum Christmas trees in existence were made by a company here in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Thanks to the ingenuity of a few engineers and salesmen at Aluminum Specialty Company, the tree concept was sold and the first affordable, mass-produced aluminum trees were brought to market just in time for Christmas 1959. Up until the 1990s, there were hordes of the trees forgotten in the attics and garages of former employees. After the tree fad faded, the trees were more or less considered tacky. We thought the design was brilliant in its simplicity--a 7 foot tall tree collapsed neatly into a relatively small cardboard box printed with simple 2-color graphics. Branches were stored in kraft-paper sleeves for protection and easy insertion in the angled holes drilled in the wood dowel trunks covered in foil and held up by a folding tripod stand. The trees were cheap at rummages and thrifts so we bought enough to fill our storefront art gallery--an annual installation from 1993 to 1998. We studied the idiosyncrasies of their design: the way the foil was applied to the trunks or the cellophane tape to the rows of aluminum needles. Installed en masse in a stark white space, the trees formed an undulating mechanical ballet that was at once haunting and sublime. We made portraits of the individual trees with an 8x10 view camera on transparency film which required intense lighting tricks to define their presence. They reflected something poignant about the belief in newness and technology in the early 1960s that interested us (see video below). The photographs became Season's Gleamings: The Art of the Aluminum Christmas Tree thanks to editor David Brown at Melcher in New York. Designed by Helene Silverman, the first edition quickly sold out after the New York Times, CBS Sunday Morning and USA Today covered "the little pink book" as a prime holiday story at the end of 2004. The media coverage made Manitowoc take the tree story seriously. We met more people in the community who had helped market or make the trees as well as people all over the country who collected them and loved them in ways we could barely imagine. It seemed everyone had a tree story to tell. People showed us incredible snapshots from the 1960s or told us their holiday associations that ranged from childlike sweetness to punk-rock nihilism. Our interest in the trees as manufactured multiples and artifacts of a specific moment of small town innovation could not transcend the pull of straight-up holiday nostalgia. No subject matter we'd addressed before tapped into the emotionality that is Christmas. The burgeoning eBay data base made vintage Evergleam aluminum trees an easy and desirable item to buy and sell online and their value escalated. Trees that were once a dollar at rummage sales now sell for hundreds of dollars online. Pink aluminum trees (perhaps due to their iconic status as an arbiter of shameless American consumerism as in A Charlie Brown Christmas) became the holy grail and sold for as much as $2,000. We stored our trees away despite the popular demand to continue installing them in our gallery each holiday season. After experiencing the media treatment that framed us as "aluminum Christmas tree collectors", we fully comprehended that the trees--in their minimalist tree-ness--could not escape the intensity of Christmas and the media's insatiable desire for fresh holiday stories. We were anxious to pass the aluminum tree mantle to a public institution and that's when Joe Kapler, curator at the Wisconsin Historical Museum came along. He has taken on the responsibility of preserving the history of the Wisconsin-made Evergleam tree through the Museum's expanding collection and annual installations. After 5 years, Season's Gleamings will go out of print after having helped make the once neglected trees and their Wisconsin story museum-worthy.


Trace @ The Project Lodge

Paul Baker Prindle and his students invited us to show some work in Trace: Wisconsin Portrait Makers at the Project Lodge in Madison. Tom Jones showed his enveloping and lush recent portraits of Native American fur trader era re-enactors (mind-bending), Alan Luft's black-and-white photographs were hung salon style blending portraits examining his German-American ancestry alongside portraits made in the streets of Berlin (gorgeous prints, carefully composed). A giant print by Prindle from his Mementi Mori series portrayed a site where a gay person had been murdered (sad and creepy). Jake Naughton, a journalism student branching out into art, showed color portraits of banal chairs (haunting yet colorful). We showed small inkjet prints from our What We Do Here project hung in a row by small clips. When we were undergrads at UW Madison in the early 1980s, we lived around the corner from the Project Lodge. The space was a womyns food coop then selling brown rice and herb tea. It felt comfortable to be in that place again and reminded us of all the bands, filmmakers, artists, zine people and record stores that used to and still seem to populate the neighborhood.


Milwaukee's Blank Generation 2010 Calendar

A departure from the soothing Ansel Adams scenic landscape wall calendar, WMSE radio published a calendar of black-and-white portraits by Stanley Ryan Jones. Stan and WMSE invited us to write the liner notes for the back page of the calendar. Instead of changing seasons, we see the changing moods in a nocturnal twilight zone devoid of seasons. Instead of reminding us of camping trips to Yosemite, we remember late nights at the Starship to check out the Cramps or our own vintage prom dress collection always worn with a black leather jacket. We met Stan in Milwaukee 22 years ago. He wore a long black coat and had a black walking stick, a cast on his leg and was living in the Norman Apartments on Wisconsin Avenue. He'd been a smokejumper on the west coast and had fractured his ankle. He returned to Wisconsin to set up a studio and make art. His collages and "drip" paintings (caulk, glitter and enamel paint were among his materials) cluttered the surfaces of his space. He stenciled a decorative border of red and black cockroaches at the top of the walls. He invited us over for homemade burritos and to talk art. His Milwaukee punk/new wave portraits, circa 1979-1981, interested us most. Black-and-white, brash yet intimate 35 mm snapshots, they revealed the directness of his process. He approached the subject, backed them against a pretty patterned wall and pushed the button of his Nikon F2. The blinding light of his strobe illuminated the usually dark, dank night club spaces. His subjects ranged from Iggy Pop and Lux Interior to anonymous scene makers. On January 12, 1991 when the Norman Apartments went up in flames, four people lost there lives and many artists lost their life work including Stan. With his smokejumper background, he crept into the ruins days later to see what if anything was left of his work. He rescued a stack of RC prints fused into a cube and charred around the edges. He peeled the prints apart, built them a black coffin and 16+ years later 83 of the more resonant became part of the Milwaukee Art Museum's permanent collection. Erin Wolf of Fan-Belt.com interviewed Stan about the past and present and you can read it here.


What We Do Here

We've been driving around Wisconsin photographing what people do here and the landscape they do it in and finished a book of the pictures called What We Do Here. Some of our favorites were Mel (a soda pop bottler in Seymour whose small business supplies the surrounding area with white sugar sweetened pop in vintage 7 oz. glass bottles), Richie (who owns the Culture Cafe in Manitowoc and whose excellent rants critique local happenings that reflect global issues), and Becky from Popp's Resort (who returned to the family business in Crivitz after a career as a Waterski pro). We were interested in self-employed people making their own reality in an obscure place at a time when there's a growing hysteria over job security, health insurance and crumbling institutions. We revisited people we've photographed on their home turf a few times over the past 10 or more years (e.g. Rev. Norb, Dylan, Amber, Tina, Debbra, Jeri) but this time we photographed them where they work be it a chain pizza restaurant or yacht building company. Our author friend Michael Perry posed with his pigs and gave us an essay for the book. It's called "Feed Mill" and it's about his childhood memories of driving to the feed mill with his father. We keep making these pictures as we drive around Wisconsin in our 1962 Rambler Town and Country station wagon.


Don't Forget Who U R

U R NOT A STAR was "found" scrawled on the back of a broken microwave pictured in the random detritus of one of our photographs. The phrase, and now the title of an exhibition of our portrait photographs, alludes to the meanings and dreamings small town people derive from stuff like punk rock, skateboarding and pop art. Sid Vicious, Joey Ramone and Andy Warhol may loom larger in the minds of people in towns like Manitowoc or Green Bay where rock magazines, MTV and record stores fuelled the sort of ironic escapist fantasies and aspirations expressed in Sonic Youth's cover of Superstar or Patti Smith's cover of So You Want to be a Rock 'n' Roll Star. We met the curator of the show, Rachel Vander Weit, at the Milwaukee Art Museum where she was a curatorial research assistant during the time we were working on Unmasked & Anonymous. U R NOT A STAR is Rachel's UWM Museum Studies Graduate Thesis Project focusing on performance as an aspect of portrait photography. We usually make (but rarely show) 3-D images with a vintage Stereo Realist camera which illicits a different sort of performance than our 8x10 Deardorff does. While digging through our archive with Rachel, she selected seven 3-D out-takes from a 1997 summer afternoon shoot with Brett and Nigel at their chaotic Madison, Wisconsin squat. Digital technology made it possible to scan the slides and make ink jet prints that could be displayed and viewed through small 3-D spectacles in a gallery setting. Rachel also included the text we wrote documenting events leading up to the portraits. Some of the people in these photographs actually did achieve a sort of under the radar fame. Brad X has his Get Drunk and Play Records Garage Punk podcast and YouTube Channel showcasing his homespun "vernacular avant-garde" videos including footage from opening night of this show. Rev. Norb is well known as a former columnist for Maximum Rock and Roll and for his many bands including Boris the Sprinkler, which was the only Wisconsin band to make it into the 2008 Encylopedia of Punk. Fame, real or imagined, is relative and a cultural construct that seems a twisted part of the American Dream. Judith Moriarty reviewed it for the Third Coast Digest and our Lawrence University colleague Martyn Smith did a post with video on his Old Roads blog. The show runs September 3-24, 2009 at the UWM Art History Gallery, Mitchell Hall, 3203 North Downer Avenue, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


Feedback Loop

They were both working at Papa John's in Manitowoc until it closed in spring. Mark sold Brad a video camera cheap and Brad taped even the most mundane aspects of his daily life like going in to work to deliver pizza on Christmas eve. After working a bunch of food service jobs from Papa John's to McDonald's, Amber began scrutinizing the ingredients on the food packages in her kitchen cabinets then did some Internet research and decided to plant a garden in the backyard of the small house they were renting in an industrial neighborhood. It seemed a good project while they were underemployed. Brad tilled up the plot and videotaped the process. She planted, weeded and mulched. We decided to photograph her in the garden when the first vegetables were ready for harvest in July. She held her hoe, donned her garden gloves and tucked a day lily behind her ear. Brad videotaped us photographing with our 8x10 while wearing his ubiquitous two-tone sunglasses. The regional subtexts our photographs are about can now be viewed on YouTube with the added texture of the sound of voices, the visual detail of interior spaces and the specific qualities of the Midwestern landscape that are obvious and all-encompassing yet remote and obscure. Our photographic interactions become fodder too, making us the subject in an endless feedback loop.


Tintype Studio Pilgrimage

Henry Ford collected all kinds of morbidly nostalgic objects like the chair Abe Lincoln was assassinated in, a Buckminster Fuller Dymaxion House, an Oscar Mayer Weinermobile and much more for his sprawling museum in suburban Detroit. He collected other buildings too like the Robert Frost house, inventor Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park (NJ) laboratory, brick slave quarters, wood farm buildings and dozens of other iconic American structures to make up his Greenfield Village. Like most roadside tourist destinations, there is an air of the carnivalesque with an earnest attempt to educate while venerating American ingenuity. Stripped from their original contexts and set along neatly paved pathways on tidy mowed lawns, many of the displaced edifices lack the resonance of place. Still, we wanted see the circa-1870 Tintype Studio replica we’d heard was there. Scholars now site the tintype portrait as an example of American Dream brand capitalism in exhibitions such as America and the Tintype so it is easy to understand why a tintype studio fit into Ford’s schema. The tiny gray painted wood building constructed in one day in 1929, features a colorful hand-painted backdrop lit with skylight moderated by a muslin scrim. It made a nice digital snapshot op for tourists like us. The darkroom and dressing room were closed--perhaps opened only for special events featuring Civil War Reenactors or wet-plate collodion revivalists. Ford more or less collected people too. Didactic signage states that when Ford heard his employee Charles Tremear was the “last wandering tintypist in America” he promptly transferred him to Greenfield Village to run his new Tintype Studio. By the time Tremear died in 1943, he is said to have made 40,000 tintypes in the studio including portraits of Lillian Gish and Walt Disney. Despite Tremear’s long tenure and impressive productivity, the complexity of place that resonates at H. H. Bennett Studio which is preserved in its original location on the main drag in Wisconsin Dells, has evaporated with the ether. In contrast, the Bennett family operated the studio in the same building from 1875 til turning it over to the Wisconsin Historical Society in the late 1990s. The surrounding built environment of Wisconsin Dells changed wildly--fueled by Bennett’s own stunning landscapes to make way for water parks and motels in less than 100 years. Bennett Studio stands as an unintentional cautionary tale of the power of photography over place just as Ford’s tasteful Museum underscores a mania for collecting as the power of information to respin history.


Brian Ulrich @ LU

We hosted Chicago photographer Brian Ulrich at Lawrence University April 30 where he lectured on his Copia series and visited with our photography and video students. His portrait of a goth teen shoe-shopping was among our favorites showing 21st century youthful rebellion being expressed through consumer choice. After photographing Manitowoc youths in Ramones t-shirts in the 1990s, we see a continuum of difference still expressed via shopping. Can teenaged questioning and dissatisfaction evolve into something more than the latest Hot Topic fad or yet another skateboarding revival now? Ultra-goth dead malls, which are great for skateboarders, have been absorbed into Brian's Copia series recently. He just received a Guggenheim Fellowship to fund expanding the work in the coming year. Excellent. He photographs the abandoned structures at night to underscore their eerie presence. The pictures gave us hope that these fading cathedrals of consumerism will soon become permaculture homesteads or nursing homes. Our home town, Manitowoc, features the decrepit empty Brutalist architectural wonder, the Mid Cities Mall. We hope Brian will visit and add an eerie after dark study of the place to his ouevre.


Dawoud Bey @ MAM

The lush faces of teenagers filled the shadowy white gallery space at the Milwaukee Art Museum. The exhibition of portraits by Dawoud Bey called Class Pictures (April 15-July 12, 2009) was made up of sumptuous color prints exuding dewy youth. The show catalog and text panels documented the words of each sitter. As part of his process, Bey asked the students to begin by writing something about themselves. These brief, sometimes edited texts were displayed alongside the portraits often blowing away viewer preconceptions. Bey trains the lens of his 4x5 camera on the person allowing the background elements to fall into the soft focus inherent in view camera pictures. He positions hands carefully to reflect a gesture in the subject's repertoire of gestures. "What should I do with my hands?" is a typical response to posing for the camera. A generation ago Karsh focused on the mature faces and textured hands of great people. He asked them to hold cigarettes, touch faces, fold hands or point fingers as if to contemplate or confront fate. Bey is able to coax a more casual gesture from a generation that perhaps has deconstructed greatness. Wisdom and wrinkles now only make rare appearances in American visual culture though youth is ephemeral.


Yousuf Karsh @ AIC

The Art Institute of Chicago went out on a limb showing a large selection of portraits by Yousuf Karsh called Regarding Heroes (January 22 - April 26, 2009). There are elements of kitsch and passion that make his work defiantly out of tune with current portraiture be it overly PhotoShopped pictures of pretty people or the deadpan view camera work of so many contemporary practitioners. Karsh's In Search of Greatness was about the only photography book the Manitowoc Public Library had when we first moved back to this small Wisconsin town. The mass-circulated book from 1962 showed off the lush vision of Karsh. Smoldering cigarettes, chewed on cigars, long white eye brow hairs, glasses of booze and rich facial texture emerged from the blackness. It was great to see the large and immaculate silver gelatin prints on display in Chicago where the details crackeld from the prints framed and hanging there on the classic burlap covered walls of the basement photography gallery. This was curator David Travis' last show for the AIC and it rocked as Lisa D. would say.


One Million Years is Three Seconds

We became interested in how four Wisconsin men (a poet, a dancer, a farmer and a retired factory worker turned outdoor sculptor) experienced the 20th century. Bob, Barry, Herman and Paul lived through most of it--witnessing the introduction of telephones, televisions, automobiles, atomic bombs, and flush toilets into everyday life. They also witnessed the waging of numerous wars and staggering economic shifts. We photographed the four men, recorded their stories and made a 16 mm film about them. In 2008, we compiled a portion of our accumulated material into a book, One Million Years is Three Seconds (96 pages). We've installed the photographs, film loops and ephemera at Turner Art Center Gallery, Shreveport, LA, Caestecker Gallery, Ripon, WI, and Wriston Art Center Galleries, Appleton, WI.