The Elders (1987-1988)
Seeking the wisdom of older people became the focus of this project examining the spaces and moral values of the generations before us. Funded by a grant from the Milwaukee Artist Foundation, we exhibited the photographs at the most accessible space we could find, the Milwaukee Public Library Gallery on Wisconsin Avenue downtown.
View images on Flickr
Read about photographing Milwaukee chanteuse Hildegarde
Read Art Muscle Sept/Oct 1988 review by Tom Bamberger
Essay by J. Shimon & J. Lindemann (1988)
“Old age is not for sissies” said Gretchin Colnik, an 81-year-old former Milwaukee TV personality quoting Art Linkletter. A look at older people is a glance at our future. As a younger person, you can’t help but wonder how you will age. It is difficult to consider what your expectations should be.
We spent a year photographing older people in Milwaukee and talking with them about their lives. We thought insights into the societal changes of the 20th-century that have affected this industrial Midwestern city could be explored by photographing the people who directly experienced the changes.
The selection of subjects was an arbitrary cross-section of people ages 58 to 100. Individuals who had a direct effect on everyday life in Milwaukee (a mayor, a governor, an industrial designer, an architect) are included as well as school teachers, retail clerks, artists, poets, a street preacher and a tattooed lady.
In talking with these “elders” about their lives, we formulated our perception of how they could be photographed in their environments. We wanted to evoke a sense of what their lives were about, what they valued. Their spaces, often cluttered with souvenirs and artifacts accumulated over a lifetime, reflect their achievements, their values, their struggles. Some homes and work places were impersonal monuments to post-war elegance within a carefully “decorated” comfortable suburban atmosphere.
“Work won’t hurt nobody. The trouble with Americans is that they’re afraid to work and they want to be millionaires overnight,” observed Richard Krueger who started working in the family bakery as a young boy. He and his wife, Shirley, own and operate the Herman A. Krueger Bakery on Holton Street in Milwaukee founded at the turn of the century by Krueger’s grandfather. Today, the Kruegers pride themselves in offering baked goods made from scratch at a reasonable price. They have a dedication to the art of baking and a modest business approach that is disappearing.
Ninety-five-year-old Florence Josephson was a clerk at Woolworth’s until she married in 1919 and became active in her church Ladies Aid group working in the kitchen. She noted, “Nowadays people don’t adjust to financial hardship. They buy anything they see. Whether it costs a lot or not, they buy it. I don’t like their ideas. I can’t see buying stuff and having bills. I wasn’t used to. When we bought anything, we paid for it. I had a charge card but seldom used it.
Prophet Blackmon, a street preacher and artist, runs a shoe repair business in an abandoned machine shop. The space doubles as a church and headquarters for his ministry helping inner city youth and their families. “The Prophet” lives a meager existence and has only recently begun to pay off his debts with the proceeds from sales of his paintings. He accepts his mission and plight heroically. “Anything worthwhile in life is going to demand suffering. When the suffering ends, the joy will come.”
We photographed several people over 80 working still full-time while maintaining an active social schedule. The chanteuse Hildegarde performed at Carnegie Hall on her 80th birthday and regularly gives free performances at nursing homes and benefit events. At 83, Leta Breitlow works full-time in the photo studio she founded with her husband more than 50 years ago. Edna Dretzka, age 84, former school teacher, works part-time as a ladies ready-to-wear sales clerk in the family department store.
A number of people in their 80s and 90s have been retired since the 1950s. If their work represents their usefulness to society, these people haven’t materially contributed to the system for decades and have been left behind to watch the world race by. Their contact with the outside work is through the news media which chronicles the progressions and regressions of society. They have been privileged with an opportunity to step away from the world and take a good look at it before being separated from life.
Ninety-five-year-old World War I nurse Elsie Walker Darling, a resident of the Zablocki VA Medical Center, came to the US from Yorkshire, England. During the war she was sent to France as a Red Cross Nurse. Prior to her retirement she worked as a polio nurse administering vaccines for the Health Department from a van. Since then she works on water color paintings and her singing. “I’m a lucky person that the Lord has let me live this long. I ask him why and he says it’s none of my business!”
Many of these “elders” appreciate the convenience of instant coffee and synthetic fibers, had their values shaped by the evolution of modern society along with mass production of goods and consumerism. Automobiles, the single most important machine, emerged during their lifetimes. One of our subjects, Brooks Stevens, was at the forefront of this social change. From his office in Milwaukee, he invented the steam iron, clothes dryer, and outboard motor for boats, a flashy sports car, and more.
The simple, difficult lives of the parents of this generation gave way to the complexity of the Nuclear Age. Most of these “elders” agree that the present state of the world weighs heavily on them. Memories of the “old days” are so gentle that the world of cellular car phones, power lunches, and health club chains make us wonder about the fate of our own generation. The future will create a new nostalgia. In the words of Joseph Star, a 94-year-old former World War One infantryman: “I had an interesting life, but it wasn’t interesting then.”
It has been comforting to linger in the company of the “elders” listening to their stories about World War, the Great Depression, and Prohibition thus observing the wisdom derived from decades of living. Richard Flagg, a retired businessman and art collector once told us “Young people can have everything–except wisdom.”