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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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IB: What did you learn during your project pertaining to Wisconsin taverns about Wisconsin culture and business?

Corey: It was interesting to me, when I did the Tavern League book, which proceeded For Love and Money, how amicable one bar owner, one tavern business owner would be for another business owner in the same town — the competition. I got a lot of referrals to go see other taverns, and that’s how that opened up to me. What I thought was interesting was how — and I knew this when I lived in Chicago, which is where I was originally from — the Wisconsin tavern culture is really social. People can live 60 miles away from each other and meet in the middle at a tavern, and they will use the tavern like their living room or their dining room. They may spend all afternoon there, have a meal, whatever. It’s not so much about drinking, although there are some entities that would like you to think it’s about drinking. It’s really not. It’s really about community. It’s about social community, and while there are a few cocktails going down, that’s what I learned about it, how friendly it was.

“I don’t know any businessman who hasn’t failed repeatedly before they become successful. So, you need to persevere.” – Carl Corey

IB: Like a rural or small-town version of Starbucks.

Corey: Yes, that’s a good analogy. Starbucks has probably chained that whole mentality as a place where people can congregate and talk and have a meal.

IB: How does one become a Guggenheim Fellow in Photography?

Corey: You don’t. They’ve got to kind of find you. So, I hate to beat this to death, but I became a Guggenheim Fellow at 64. I’ve been doing this since I was 13. So, there is that perseverance. I retired from the advertising realm about 12 years ago, so I really didn’t start this career that the Guggenheim applies itself to until about 12 years ago. I just think you’ve really got to work hard, and you can’t expect things, and you’ve really got to be willing to accept failure and rejection and not let it get to you. And understand that when you are rejected by folks, that it’s simply their opinion. It’s not really the judgment of an almighty, all-knowledgeable type being. It’s simply a reflection of opinion. You can’t let that get you down. You have to believe in yourself and keep working. You have to apply for things like that. You have to try, right? You have to be able to jump off the cliff if you’re going to succeed.

They do see a portfolio. They request a portfolio of 20 prints. They would like it to be on a project, so I sent then the most current project I’ve worked on, which is about the Great Lakes. It’s called The Strand, and it’s about half completed. I’ll be finishing it this year. They want to see actual work before they make any actual announcements for awards.

IB: Do you have any particular favorites among the taverns you visited? I know I’m asking you to make people mad, but still …

Corey: If I find myself in any particular area, I’ll go to one of those taverns for lunch or whatever. When I’m working, I really don’t have a beer. I don’t have anything to drink when I’m working, and it’s because I’m working but yeah, there are stories about those taverns that are pretty interesting. They are really in the book. I like the Red Room in Sturgeon Bay because of the way the guy supports the retired shipyard workers. Every morning, this young guy would bring in pastries and coffee and all of these older, octogenarian type guys would come in and sit around these big tables and talk and drink coffee and there was no charge. He brought those pastries in, and the coffee was free and the pastries were free. That’s just kind of a big-hearted person, and so I’ll always remember that.

I’ll remember Wolski’s in Milwaukee as being just such a communal place. There were all sorts of folks in there. Big shots, just regular folks, college kids, working-class people, multiethnic. It’s really a nice place to go because of that, and everybody is friendly in that place. That’s really a nice place, but really all the taverns that I visited impressed me in one way or another.

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