Click here to view slideshow.
A man walks into a bar carrying a note. After his eyes adjust to the light, he presents the note to the barkeep and walks out.
A man walks back into the same bar, carrying a tripod and a hand-crank camera. This means the barkeep has responded favorably to the note, which is a request to shoot a portrait of the bar and the people who run it. The man is Carl Corey, a full-time documentary photographer who spent two years following this procedure while driving the dark and narrow roads up north where he lives.
The result of his expedition is "Tavern League: Portraits of Wisconsin Bars," which is a book issued by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, and an exhibition at RayKo Photo Center, two blocks south of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
The 16 square prints look like oversize Polaroids and line one wall. Walking along takes you into places like Shari's Chippewa Club in Durand and Leaker's Place in Glenwood City, which is "a four-laner," for bowling. There is Ken playing his accordion at Ken's Keyboard in East Farmington and Kathy and Bernie in front of their window dioramas at the Moccasin Bar in Hayward. Some of these joints don't need people to make their point. The decor says it all.
"In rural Wisconsin, these taverns could be the only place where a community can gather," says Corey, 57, who was here earlier this month to open his show, "and for the tavern owners they are like their living rooms."
Corey's own living room is Bob Smith's Sports Club, near his home on County Road I in Hudson. A self-funded documentarian, he is not a native, but he's lived in the state long enough to know how to pronounce it, with a silent 'Wis' and a strong "Sconce." He prefers the word tavern to bar. A tavern is homier, and at the taverns he visits there is always some kind of food, "at least a frozen pizza," says Corey, who can be found at Bob's on Friday for the fish fry.
"A tavern is a place where you go to talk," he says, "not to get drunk."
Corey is very respectful of these institutions, which is why he never walked in with his camera gear. "I would scout the bars ahead of time," he says. "If they were attractive to me on an aesthetic and cultural level, I would pass a note." The note had his cell number. Sometimes the response came in an hour and sometimes it took 10 days. Out of maybe 100 joints visited, only two didn't respond at all, which was the end of it.
He wasn't about to badger anybody.
He'd drive as far as 300 miles to spend an hour or two. Using a Hasselblad and medium format film, he worked with available light, which presented a challenge. At Random in Milwaukee was "the darkest place I've even been in my life," he says. "I couldn't see my feet." When his eyes finally adjusted, he caught a swanky date lounge in red. It took 10 minutes to get the exposure.
His only request of his portrait subjects was to act natural. "I don't like smiles," he says. "I think they are fake." For their time, he always sent the subjects a print.
"A lot of them hang them in the bar," Corey says. "Where would you put a picture of yourself? In the living room."