Cheers to the Wisconsin Tavern
Hudson photographer Carl Corey’s forthcoming book illustrates the tavern’s unique place in the state’s culture.
Most Friday nights, you’ll likely find Hudson photographer Carl Corey having fish fry with his wife Kay and friends at Bob Smith’s Sports Club in Hudson.
“I started taking these photos of Wisconsin taverns in fall 2008 and ended in summer 2010. The last picture I made for the series was at the Bob Smith’s, of the table in the back room where I go for fish fry,” said the award-winning photographer whose prints are in galleries from New York to Hong Kong and in the collections of major museums and companies like Nikon and Braun Intertec.
“In fact, my wife Kay and I took some people who bought two of my prints out to dinner at the Sports Club last Wednesday.”
The Sports Club and other taverns, bars and supper clubs throughout the state are pictured in Corey’s forthcoming book, Tavern League, Portraits of Wisconsin Bars, published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, with an introduction by noted photo editor Vincent Virga of the Library of Congress.
Corey’s book, anticipated for release late summer or early fall, illustrates—through his unique perspective—the special place that taverns inhabit in Wisconsin’s community life and American culture.
“The Wisconsin Historical Society is doing a fabulous job,” said Corey, whose photos have been exhibited nationally and have appeared in numerous books and publications including Rancher, a monograph of his photos published by Bunker Hill in 2007. “They are without a doubt among the best publishers I’ve ever worked with.”
Corey’s foray into Wisconsin taverns began as an offshoot of his body of work called Habitat.
“My Habitat photos are really the queen of the hive, and everything I do comes out of that, like my tavern series or my series For Love and Money on Wisconsin family businesses,” Corey said. “I always choose topics that really interest me and that I want to explore a little deeper.”
Born and raised in Chicago and living in Hudson since 1994, Corey’s interest in taverns and their role in the community began with family vacations to Wisconsin.
“Our family would come to Wisconsin and go camping, and sometimes my folks would take us to a tavern for a meal,” Corey said. “People there would befriend you—they’d strike up conversation with my folks and ask where we were from. It was always an enjoyable memory for me—that sense of community in the Wisconsin tavern. In Chicago, you didn’t have that. People there always viewed Wisconsin as the tavern state.”
Not all tavern experiences have been so pleasant, however, and Corey recognizes the dark side. He experienced that first-hand when he worked at a bar while a college student at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
“It was a pretty rough bar, and I was a bouncer from midnight to 4 a.m.,” said the 6-2 photographer. “You learn pretty quickly that no bar owner or employee wants people who are drunk in their establishment.”
While wandering the state for his tavern project, Corey discovered the same friendliness that his family experienced as vacationers.
“No one knew me; I was just a guy with a camera wanting to take pictures. Of all the places in the state only two were less than really embracing and said ‘no,’” he said.
What makes Wisconsin taverns unique, Corey said, is that they serve as a community gathering place for meetings or recreation, and a place for families and friends to meet and enjoy a meal, as children are allowed with their parents, unlike many other states.
“They are really a lot like pubs in Europe, in particular the British Isles," Corey said. "For example, there you entertain at the local pub because houses are small. You invite your friends and family out and meet them down at the corner pub for a bite. People use pubs as their living rooms, very much like people in Wisconsin.”
Corey, who has received awards from the New York Art Director’s Club, Communications Arts, Print Annual and others, has worked in the advertising, graphic design and film industries.
He says photography is his favorite fine art medium.
“The strength of photography for me is that it’s the only art medium that you can actually experience reality and share that with people," Corey said. "I hope that through seeing my photos an audience who has never experienced these taverns can experience them before they are gone.”