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Take Five with Carl Corey: Capturing Wisconsin’s image

The Guggenheim Fellow in Photography and transplanted Chicagoan talks about his late-life career of capturing Wisconsin in photographs.

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Photographer Carl Corey has had an interesting second act as a professional photographer. A one-time advertising film director, his photographs have been the subject of three monographs including: The Tavern League: A Portrait of the Wisconsin Tavern (The Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2011); Rancher (Bunker Hill / GalleryPrint, 2007); and For Love and Money: A Portrait of the Family Business (WHS Press, 2014).

Corey, a Guggenheim Fellow in Photography and the recipient of over 100 awards from the photography and publishing communities, recently made his second appearance as the keynote speaker at the Wisconsin Family Business Awards. As a small family businessman himself — “I’m as small as small can be,” he says — Corey noted how difficult it is to be a business operator, and he praised the gathering for their perseverance. In this Take Five interview, the transplanted Chicagoan talked about his late-life career of capturing Wisconsin in photographs.

IB: You can speak to what it’s like to be involved in a small, family business right now, so how would you characterize the current economic environment for family businesses?

Corey: I’m in such a unique area, being a fine-art photographer, documentary photographer, I’m not sure I’m in the best position to answer that. What I see out there is that no, I don’t think it’s a good time. My last project, before the one I’m working on now, was called BLUE: A Portrait of the American Worker. I see the middle class dwindling. I spent three years on that project. So, speaking for that experience, I definitely don’t think the country is headed in the right direction right now, and it hasn’t been for a while. It wasn’t in the early 2000s, and I don’t mean to speak politically but I’m looking at it from my experience. There was a slight resurgence during the Obama years, and now I see another rapid decline.

IB: Are you worried about the impact of another round of tariffs on China seeping down into small businesses like retailers?

Corey: Well, I only know what I hear on public radio and in the news, and I think Wisconsin is getting hit pretty hard right now with the farmers because the milk in the ag industry is really getting hammered. Harley-Davidson, I’ll be surprised if they are around in five or six years.

IB: Because of changing consumers tastes or unstable business? Younger people are driving its decision to sell more overseas.

Corey: My wife and I were just having this discussion on our way down to Madison. Younger people are not driving that type of motorcycle. I’ve got over 1 million miles on motorcycles, and I see [younger] people riding enduro bikes, dirt bikes, and …

IB: More environmentally friendly stuff.

Corey: Yeah, or more sport oriented than cruiser oriented. I do think the motorcycle riding demographic is aging off, and it’s a younger demographic making other choices. That was one problem that Harley had. Now, combined with the tariffs that Harley has had to deal with, I think that was just a one-two punch. I really think they are going to have to weather some pretty serious storms, plus their bikes are now approaching the prices of a lot of cars.

IB: What are some lessons that can be taken from your own experience that can be applied to any business?

Corey: There are three words: passion, purpose, and perseverance. I think you need to be passionate about what you do, and I don’t mean just interested in it. I mean really passionate. This is what you really want to do. You can’t see yourself doing anything else. And I think what you choose to do has to have a purpose. So, to be passionate about something that has no purpose is not going to guarantee success. You can be as passionate as you want, and that’s great, but it has to apply to other people. It has to have a purpose, whatever that may be. And then just because you have passion and purpose, that’s no guarantee, either. You’re going to have a lot of rough times. I don’t know any businessman who hasn’t failed repeatedly before they become successful. So, you need to persevere. If you combine those three things, and you’re able to persevere, you’ll succeed.


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