Wisconsin Labor: A Contemporary Portrait

Amber baking pizza, Manitowoc, 2007

Before the US economy imploded in the fall of 2008, the Wisconsin Arts Board in collaboration with the Wisconsin State Historical Society commissioned us to photograph "labor" in the state of Wisconsin. We had a sense that the frenetic 20th century consumer economy, high on endless credit and corporate buyouts, was obsolete. The sort of "industrial age" portrayals of labor in photographs that we had grown up with had lapsed into nostalgia as sterile chain restaurants and retail stores mushroomed along the Interstate of every small town we could think of. We were assigned our native region of northeastern Wisconsin. At first we assumed the largest employer in Manitowoc, where we live, would be one factory or another. Instead, it was a hospital with 1000+ employees. The business of taking care of aging factory works was big business. We proposed focusing on self-employed people or those carrying on family-owned businesses. They seemed iconoclasts in a time of increased homogenization working long hours without payoff so much as survival. We modeled our compositional approach after August Sander's People of the Twentieth Century, oft described as a "monumental lifelong project" of making portraits of social "types" around him in Germany. There seemed to be a connection between the fading traditions of pastrycooks, farmers and artists of Sander's era and the self-employed soda pop bottlers and bread bakers we found hidden away in Wisconsin. In 2008, we compiled these portraits plus many we made of farmers in a self-published book titled What We Do Here available online for $24.70.
August Samder. Pastrycook, 1928
Leah in her kitchen, Washington Island, 2007
The James Watrous Gallery of the Wisconsin Academy has organized a traveling exhibition of the resulting photographs from the WAB project by us plus Tim Abler (prof at Cardinal Stritch University), Dick Blau (film prof at UW Milwaukee), David Herberlein (prof at UW River Falls) and Jamie Young (freelance photographer now living in Syacuse). The show opened on Friday, October 29 at the Wriston Art Center Galleries at Lawrence University where we are on faculty. For the project, we shot both 8x10 color transparency film and black-and-white negative film so produced platinum-palladium prints of our favorite negatives plus updated the project to include several earlier and more recent images plus a 23 minute film called "Charlie's in Kodachrome." The exhibition will travel to the Watrous Gallery in Madison in February and Cardinal Stritch University in fall 2011.

Visitors at Wriston Art Center Galleries. Photo by Leslie Walfish
Wriston Art Center Galleries installation November 2010

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