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.

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.



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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