Chicago photographer Ricky Kluge grew up in Lake Geneva, a small resort town in Southern Wisconsin. While his hometown attracts affluent tourists from Chicago, Milwaukee and beyond, many area residents are struggling to make ends meet. This year, Kluge embarked on a series of portraits of people living in and around Lake Geneva, starting (literally) in his own backyard.
Daily Yonder: Tell us a little bit about your background.
Ricky Kluge: I grew up in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, which is a tourist town, and lived in a subdivision with an airstrip. A lot of pilots lived there, but my dad didn’t fly a plane. It was a very relaxed kind of environment to grow up in. I enjoyed it, but I was antsy to be around more people and see new and different things. About halfway through high school I knew I wanted to go somewhere else for college.
Daily Yonder: What was it like to grow up in a small tourist town like Lake Geneva?
Ricky Kluge: When I was born Lake Geneva was around 5,000 that lived there. It’s a small town, and a tourist town, and it’s built around the lake. If you’ve ever lived in areas that have tourists, things get really cluttered up at those times, which can be annoying. But there’s also more people you can end up meeting and have interactions with. I met people from all over and I really appreciated that.
Just outside the town, there’s a lot of farm fields, and these very small villages and townships. Bloomfield Township is where I grew up, but the address is technically Lake Geneva. Since I was a kid, people have been slowly connecting the spaces in between the little towns in the area and those are areas that I’m really interested in. The house I grew up in is really only three miles away from the downtown tourist area, but if you don’t have a car it’s kind of a trip to go out there, and it feels very different from the town itself. There’s a lot of dissipating business and people are still living in the area but a lot of them now have to travel thirty minutes to two hours for their jobs, but these areas in Wisconsin are so cheap to live, it’s worth the commute.
Daily Yonder: How would you describe your style of photography?
Ricky Kluge: My whole goal is to make things look more real than they actually are. Hyper realistic. Almost all of my work lit with an artificial light but a lot of times you can’t tell, but if you tried to go and take that same picture with natural light it wouldn’t look like that. I really like manipulating light to make a picture look the way I see it.
Daily Yonder: Tell us a little bit about the series you are starting.
Ricky Kluge: The series began with these pictures at my house and of my mom and my dad. They are awesome people who are dealing with all the financial stuff that’s going on. And a lot of people in the area are going through that- they’re middle class people who’ve hit a wall like everyone else has.
I’ve been wanting to put together a series that means something to me. I know that might sound cheesy, but I guess that’s what you do when you’re creating. With this series I want to learn about people’s lives and to document their trials and tribulations and make the images in the way I want them, exactly how I see them.
These are the people I grew up around all the time. I don’t have any images of them except in my brain, so I think it’ll be good to have a solid image. Just for myself. But if these images are appreciated, or liked, or eve disliked by other people, that’s always good too.
When you start a project like this, you don’t really know what you’re going to end up getting, which is the exciting part. I think the basic idea is that there’s financial failure, and there’s a lot of growth in some areas, too. A lot of people are content and happy with the lifestyle they’re living there. Obviously you’re going to run into a lot of negative people, too, that’s everywhere. There are lows, but there are positives and highs.
Daily Yonder: How will you find people to photograph?
Ricky Kluge: I’ve been looking up different events and anything that’s going on in the areas. It’s not always easy to find that stuff in these small towns. You have to drive by a place and you see a banner that says on the side of a bar when this thing is. So I have to do research each time I visit. This is going to be something I’m working on over a year or so. It’s really difficult to try and do series with portraiture, with a lot of different types of pictures. This is going to be different locations and different people every single time. You have to go out there and make those connections from scratch. No one’s ever going to come to you. That’s what I’m starting to realize.
Daily Yonder: What will your portrait sessions be like? Where will they be, how long will you spend with your subjects, etc?
Ricky Kluge: I really want to take pictures of people in their own environments. It usually makes people the most comfortable when they’re in an environment that they’re familiar with and I always try and make them feel comfortable enough to make a connection. In general a lot of people just don’t really like getting their picture taken, so it helps to do it on their own turf. On the other hand, sometimes I might choose a location that might make the person feel uncomfortable on purpose to get that feeling or reaction
I plan to bring my camera to local bars and events and chat with people. Maybe having beers with them would be a good idea, too. Just talking and getting them comfortable enough with them to just shoot around. I do that with my parent’s friends. It’s kind of easier with a film camera. You just sit there for a long time and keep doing it and eventually people stop reacting. Once you get these natural photos of them interacting, the next step would be to ask them to pose for me. It’s going to be a lot of people saying no, just like it always is.