Bookstores are loaded with coffee table books showcasing lavish photography, but Hudson-based lensman Carl Corey's new book would be more at home on an old oak bar top than a sleek living room table.
"Tavern League: Portraits of Wisconsin Bars," published this week in hardcover by The Wisconsin Historical Society Press, is a toast to some of the greatest taverns in America's Dairyland.
"'Tavern League' came out of a ongoing project, 'Habitat,' which is pictures of the spaces that define our cultural identity," says Corey – a Chicago native – who visits Palomino at Russell and Superior in Bay View on Thursday, Aug. 18, from 5 to 7 p.m., to talk about the book.
"I am always working on the 'Habitat' series. I was in At Random in Milwaukee making a picture for 'Habitat' (in) 2007 and knew there was something more there. After I processed the film I began to contemplate an entire project around Wisconsin Taverns ... a sub set of 'Habitat'.
"I should state that I never had a 'drink' while doing this."
It is fitting, then, that the first photograph in the book, captures the red glow in the darkness that is the back room of Bay View's At Random.
While a number of the taverns in the book – including At Random – have a vintage vibe (Jamo's and Palomino are some other Milwaukee examples), it's not true of all the places.
However, others, like Mel's Midtowner in River Falls and Sessler's in Memme, for example, don't fit that mold.
Corey says that he wasn't trying to present a specific looking kind of tavern, though.
"I do look for some sense of an aesthetic as I am a subjective documentarian, by which I mean I make very conscious decisions as to what I picture and how," he says. "While they are very honest pictures, the editing and selection is very subjective."
The 125-page book is not packed full of photos. Instead, each spread features a single, nearly full-page photograph that really draws readers in.
There is the eerie, dawn-like stillness in an image of Bob Smith's Sports Club in Hudson. There is the Rorschach blot of a tiled floor at La Crosse's Popcorn Tavern. Empty chairs in front of a wall of lights suggest a party is about to break out at the Northwoods Pub in Tomahawk.
Especially engrossing are the photographs of people.
Portraits of Linda at Club Modern in Merrill and a family at Smiley's in Lake Tomahawk, appear very formal. But Jory at Von Trier and Joe at Thurman's look ready to pour and shoot the bull.
Getting to this core of great, emotive photographs wasn't easy.
"I visited at least twice as many as pictured," he recalls. "I also wanted to include multiple locales within Wisconsin. I picked a locale, got in my camper and spent a few days talking and researching the local taverns. Then with permission came back to photograph in the morning usually before they were open.
"The proprietors were very open and welcoming to the idea of this project and did what they could to facilitate its fruition. I have a larger camera on a tripod and a case of camera gear so there's no doubt when I arrive that I am serious. This really helps the proprietors know you have good intentions and are competent, therefore gaining there respect and co-operation. These pictures would not exist without the tavern owners / workers consent and co-operation. They made it happen."
Corey says that he shot more than 240 photographs for the project and that a quarter of those appear in the book, which he says is not meant to be a guide (even though, if you ask me, it'd be fun to base a road trip around these taverns).
"The book is not intended to be a definitive guide nor any kind of guide whatsoever. It is a collection of pictures plain and simple."
Getting Corey to pick a favorite photograph proves futile.
"I don't have a favorite. They are meant to work together," he replies.
But when I ask if he had a favorite tavern among the many he visited and photographed, I get a bite ... sort of.
"My dog and traveling companion Cheddar seems to like the popcorn at Wolskis."
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.