Wisconsin Idea

Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette, Sr., 1922,
photographed by J. Lindemann's great uncle
John Glander at Glander Studio, Manitowoc, WI.
Wisconsin Historical Society.
By the time the Wisconsin Labor: A Contemporary Portrait exhibition opened on February 18, 2011 at the James Watrous Gallery in Madison, the political landscape had completely changed in Wisconsin and the nation. The Wisconsin State Journal covered the show and its uncanny timing and its focus on individual workers in the work place. Thousands of teachers, municipal works, moms, dads and kids had begun gathering at the state capitol building to protest the public union busting scheme of newly elected Scott Walker. Walker appeared to be the antithesis of everything about Wisconsin and the liberalism of people like "Fighting Bob" La Follette that many admired.

Richie "Wenzel" Krueger with Ice,
Manitowoc, WI,  2005
© J. Shimon & J. Lindemann

The Wisconsin Labor project was commissioned through a Wisconsin Arts Board Percent for the Arts grant in 2007 for the Wisconsin Department of Work Force Development building on East Washington Street in Madison. It's the place unemployed people go for help. Like us, most of the photographers were academics perhaps somewhat sheltered in the ivory tower. Dick Blau teaches at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, Tim Abler at Cardinal Stritch College in Milwaukee, David Heberlein at University of Wisconsin River Falls and we at Lawrence University. Jamie Young left Madison after he finished work on the project for Syracuse, NY where he is a freelancer and his wife Harriet teaches at Syracuse University. The seven of us were selected by a panel of experts and work began on the project. Such a commission to photograph Wisconsin workers seemed a rare opportunity in 2007, a throw back to Roy Styker's Farm Securities Administration photo projects. We photographed throughout the summer and fall of 2007 and by the time our prints were made, framed and delivered in 2008, Barak Obama had been newly elected but the illusion of prosperity burst. Friends lost their jobs, real estate values tumbled and so did the value of stocks. The people we'd photographed experienced the downturn. The pizza place Amber worked at closed, Richie turned his liquor store into Wenzel's Perfect World, a night club because he couldn't compete with all the new franchise liquor stores, the yacht company laid off Dylan due to lack of sales of luxury yachts and so on. The exhibition opened first in Appleton in October 2010 to an ambivalent audience, but by the time it opened in Madison, the Wisconsin Arts Board's Percent For Arts Program that funded the project was on the verge of extinction and the capitol building was teeming with protesters spending days and nights rallying and inhabiting the capitol rotunda with hilarious signs expressing their views. We ran into friends handing out "Recall Scott Walker" bumper stickers and put one on our office door. It seemed the public once again cared about the lives of everyday people rather than the celebrities with ostentatious wealth displayed on high-def full color displays. Hummers and diamonds seemed vulgar  and wasteful as they had during similarly challenging times during the Great Depression and World War II when the average person struggled just to get by. A selection of the photographs made for the project are housed at the Wisconsin State Historical Society in Madison. We presented a well-attended lecture on the photographs that influenced our approach to the Labor project on April 3 at the Watrous Gallery as documented by Martha Glowacki for the academy and Troy Freund on his blog.


"Imperial Walker," Madison Protests, February 18, 2011
Wisconsin Labor opening at Watrous Gallery, February 18, 2011
"Stop the Attack," Madison Protests, February 19, 2011