After a couple decades as a commercial photographer, Carl Corey made a pivot to and started shooting personal pictures in a more observational style. His latest project, Americaville, is a quiet saunter across the Great Plains to the Midwest, where Corey now lives. I talked via email to Carl about his work in small towns.
Daily Yonder: Where did you grow up? Tell us a little bit about your background.
Carl Corey: Chicago’s South Side. I was a city kid. I was born in 1954 so I saw a lot of the old city change into the new. I went to Northern Illinois University and Southern Illinois University where I studied fine art photography. I owned a commercial studio in downtown Chicago from 1979 – 1990. My wife, two kids and I left Chicago in 1990 for Los Angeles where I was commercial film director for Lucasfilm and Paramount.
Where do you live now?
In 1994 we left LA for a warmer living climate and moved to Western Wisconsin 40 miles from the Twin Cities of Minnesota. I live in River Falls Wisconsin, a college town of 15,000.
When and why did you first start taking pictures?
1963. I liked the magic of photography, how it documented people and things.
What type of photography do you do, primarily?
I did advertising photography for 25 years. I stopped doing that and returned to my roots in photography around 2005, that being art/documentary work. I focus upon what I know, that being American culture. I have done three trade books, Rancher – Bunker Hill 2007, Tavern League – Wisconsin Historical Society Press 2011, and For Love and Money – Wisconsin Historical Society Press 2013.
Tell us about the series Americaville. How did it begin? How do you talk about it to folks who may have just discovered it?
I finished For Love and Money and went right into another long project BLUE-A Portrait of the American Worker. I spent from 2007 to 2014 working on long-format, focused theme work. I wanted to loosen up and simply make random observations about where we live, i.e., Wisconsin. I decided to walk 480 miles across the state and make pictures just to see what unfolded. That resulted in Along the Yellowstone Trail an artist book and series that was pretty well received. I did not want to stop after that walk and expanded the idea to the entire country. I started making these observations with no singular theme in mind just that they were observations about America. That’s Americaville. I explain it as a series where each picture is a short story, some very short, about our culture.
How long did you work on this project before you felt like it was ready to push it out? How do you decide when a project is ready?
It took about three months to start showing some pieces, It’s ongoing and I am always with a camera,
Are you especially drawn to small towns?
Yes, because they each have a personality. It’s analogous to meeting someone and making their acquaintance. They all are giving and interesting if you just look and keep an open mind.
What inspires you and fires you up to shoot a project (or just to get out and work)?
I am very curious and enjoy work. I work every day, but do major photography production in spurts. I plan a trip and research a locale, then visit for a while, come home, edit, print, share, and then go out and do it again.
I’ve been thinking about some of the quiet scenes from Americaville. I love all of these. What is it about a moment, or a scene, that makes you decide to take a picture? What elements have to come together, do you think? For the record, I ask myself this a lot and haven’t really worked out a great answer.
I look for content first, then try and make the most aesthetically pleasing picture to share that observation. I work from my gut, intuitively, and don’t over think.
How much time do you spend thinking about a project before you start? What’s your process?
I can spend years milling about an idea. I can also spend minutes. The most important thing is that the idea interests me as that assures I’ll do the best i can on it. It is also important that the pictures work for others otherwise its a futile exercise.
Do you think in terms of books when starting a new project? If so, how does that shape the pictures you take?
Books are great because it forces you to focus and see your idea congeal into a finished product. However, I do not think in terms of a finished book when working. I just make the pictures. If it makes sense to be a book it will be. The hardest part of making a book is understanding that the book supersedes individual pictures. You sometimes edit out strong pictures because they do not add to the book as a whole.