What We Do Here

“Labor: A Contemporary Portrait” installation view, Watrous Gallery, Madison, Wisconsin, February 2011

What We Do Here (2004-2010)

From farmers to artists in small towns and cities in our native Wisconsin,

we photographing individuals living and working and inventing their own worlds.

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Essay by J. Shimon & J. Lindemann (2007)

WHAT WE DO HERE is about the occupations and preoccupations of the people around us in Wisconsin. These photographs are collaborations recording our mutually idiosyncratic existences in places often overlooked. The work life of individuals interests us as we watch the evolution from the industrial to the information age. Ceremonious events (births, birthdays, holidays, weddings and travels) have been routinely documented since the popularization of personal snapshot photography, but few people chronicle the work they invest their lives in.


The iconic occupational portraits of Lewis Hine (1874-1940) and August Sander (1876-1964) express the visual and psychic residue of the early industrial age. Hine’s vision of workers in America feels silent and air-less as unidentified ragged immigrant children stand beside massive steely machines. Sander’s full frontal portraits of the farmers, artisans, artists and bourgeoisie in and around his native Westerwald, Germany, reflect the coexistence of agrarian tradition and modern socioeconomic structure. Nearly a century after Hine and Sander, we wanted to see whether the social dissonance of the early 21st century, with the added layer of the ongoing transition from a local to global economy and amped up communication, would be similarly evident in the postures, gestures and environments of the people in our region.


The intersection of the agricultural, industrial and information ages can be read in the landscape. Remnants of each era linger on the horizon. Gigantic farms churn out tanker trucks of milk and manure as cell phone towers pop up next to phone lines along highways. Taupe suburban homes with satellite dishes surround pastures and barns. The rapid flow of information via the Internet has changed the texture of daily life in villages and cities. Members of even the remotest rural Wisconsin communities tap into contemporary pop sensibilities as evident in personal construction and behavior. Although our photographs consider the differences between people and their environments, they also suggest that Americans defiantly overstate their individuality and that what is human in the realm of ideas and living has become universal.


Wisconsin’s agricultural and industrial past appears to be fading into oblivion as a service economy catering to tourists or those with ample leisure time to pursue entertainment and amusements emerges. Dairy farming and the production of utilitarian objects like cheese or electric percolators, long the basis of the Midwestern ethos and work ethic, seem nostalgic. Thirty years ago, it was common to see streams of workers heading to their jobs at the Mirro Aluminum factory in Manitowoc, metal lunch buckets in hand, to make frying pans all day. Today, the once stately brick edifice crumbles on the city’s main street following a succession of corporate mergers and buyouts. Cafes with Wi-Fi, brew pubs, skateboard and computer stores have moved into former dime stores and optometry offices downtown while Starbucks, Taco Bell, Walgreens and walk-in health care clinics with expansive parking lots engulf former farmland.


These photographs came out of short excursions to places around Wisconsin in vague pursuit of neo-regionalist tropes. We sometimes drove our Wisconsin-made 1962 Rambler Cross Country station wagon as we followed leads and tracked down former subjects in search of resourceful or DIY approaches rather than corporate ones. The people we photographed were most often self-employed relying on a combination of entrepreneurship, expertise and eccentricity while balancing the traditional with the visionary. In contrast to the brightly lit, newly constructed chain stores and industries lining frontage roads, the small owner-operated businesses existed quietly in rehabilitated older buildings and storefronts. They often championed local resources and sustained themselves through agile adaptation to the marketplace.


In these pictures, people faced our camera holding a tool representing their work and posed in their workspace. We noted that older workers’ identity seemed integrated with their occupation, while a younger generation of workers performed their service with ironic cheerfulness and dreams of elsewhere.


The slow process of photographing with the dull, wooden 8×10 Deardorff view camera was at times at odds with the busyness of the work-a-day world. Our photo sessions were concise as we composed the existing space and objects through the camera’s ground glass to make images depicting surface in detail while acting as a catalyst for a moment of heightened self-awareness. The view camera amplifies the gravity of the photographic confrontation with its imposition of stillness. The rendering capacity of the 8×10 film format enables us to make prints using both the historic platinum process and current digital inkjet technology. Platinum contact printing remains essential to our project as it references both the history of photography and the evolution of imaging technology while expressing a Wisconsin gothic tonality. The color photographs become less about an emotional state-of-being and more about surface and the current state-of-now.

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