Tavern League: Portraits of Wisconsin Bars

By Carl Corey, Foreword by Vincent Virga, Introduction by Jim Draeger

Hardcover: $29.95

ISBN: 978-0-87020-478-4

136 pages, 60 color photos, 9.75 x 9.75"; E-book now available


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With a view both familiar and undeniably unique, perceptibly eerie but somehow warmly inviting, photographer Carl Corey's pictures in "Tavern League: Portraits of Wisconsin Bars" capture the Wisconsin public house as it is today. The 60 pictures collected here are awash with a sense of place - the lingering tang of cigarette smoke, the feel of a gritty floor as a bar stool is pushed back, the ease of sinking into a dimly lit womb of good company and cold beer. Supernaturally vivid colors intertwine with distinctly average vignettes to reveal the magical, and fleeting, quality of these singular places and the people who love them.

A stunningly evocative collection of documentary pictures, "Tavern League" serves as a sociological snapshot. Our bars are unique micro-communities offering patrons a sense of belonging; many are the only public gathering place in the rural communities they serve. These simple taverns provide the valuable opportunity for face to face conversation and camaraderie, particularly as people become more physically isolated through the accelerated use of social networking, mobile texting, gaming, and the rapid-fire of email. The Wisconsin tavern presented here is an important segment of the Wisconsin community - one whose evolution, and even continued existence, stands in question in a young twenty-first century.

Carl Corey's work is exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide, as well as in numerous private and public collections. Corey has won more than 100 photography awards from such groups and publications as the New York Art Directors Club, Communication Arts, Bessies, Addys, and Gold Lions.

To receive a review copy or press release, to schedule an author event, or for more information contact the WHS Press Marketing Department: whspress@wisconsinhistory.org.

Featured Taverns:

At Random - Milwaukee
Baumgartner's - Monroe
The Blue Room - Ashland
Bob Smith's Sports Club - Hudson
Cave Bar - Hersey
Cave Inn - Roberts
Chewy's - Manitowoc
Class of '68 - La Crosse
Club 53 - Amery
Club Modern - Merrill
Club Orlow - Amherst
Deer's Bar - Deer Park
Del's Bar - La Crosse
Dick's Bar - Hudson
G-G's Tap - Benton
Glory Days - La Crosse
Iron Horse Saloon - Viola
Jamo's - Milwaukee
Jim's Buckshot Bar - Boyceville
Joe's Bar - Stevens Point
Ken's Keyboard - East Farmington
Kristin's Riverwalk - Stevens Point
Leakers Place - Glenwood City
The Longbranch - Elmwood
Mel's Midtowner - River Falls
Moccasin Bar - Hayward
Northwoods Pub - Tomahawk
Palomino Bar - Milwaukee
Popcorn Tavern - La Crosse
Quade's Place - Rhinelander
The Red Room - Dodgeville
The Red Room - Sturgeon Bay
Robbie's Place - Rhinelander
Sandy's - Viola
Sessler's - Meeme
Shari's Chippewa Club - Durand
Smiley's - Lake Tomahawk
Spot Bar - Durand
The Stockyard - Coon Valley
Thurmans "15" - Milwaukee
Tim's Black and Orange - Webster
Von Trier Tavern - Milwaukee
Wagen's Bar - Saukville
Wolski's Tavern - Milwaukee
Yesterdays - La Crosse

Carl Corey has been interested in photography since he was a child growing up in Chicago. He has worked as an advertising still photographer and director and cameraman for advertising projects in Chicago and Los Angeles. He retired from the advertising business after 25 years and moved to Wisconsin to focus on documentary photography. He lives in Hudson.

Carl Corey's work is exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide, as well as in numerous private and public collections. Corey has won more than 100 photography awards from such groups and publications as the New York Art Directors Club, Communication Arts, Bessies, Addys, and Gold Lions.

Visit Carl's website at http://carlcorey.com/

Author Q&A
Wisconsin Historical Society Press:
What inspired you to photograph taverns around Wisconsin and create "Tavern League?"

Carl Corey: "Tavern League" came from the Habitat series of pictures which I am always working on. I had photographed interiors of a couple taverns for Habitat and thought it would be interesting to explore this Tavern Culture a little further, incorporating portraits of the proprietors as well as interiors.

WHS Press: How did you select the taverns to photograph? Were they taverns you had visited before or ones you had heard about?

CC: I visited every tavern beforehand and requested permission to return to photograph. Very few were referrals most were scouted the day before I requested access. I would arrive in a locale set up a base camp and work for a few days.

WHS Press: You say in the book that tavern culture is transitioning with "this cultural and electronic bombardment." What is tavern culture like now and how do you see it changing?

CC: As people become more socially lazy, the effort to go out and visit is becoming less prevalent. People are socializing while they drive to work. The taverns in the book still offer an atmosphere for camaraderie and socializing.

WHS Press: Each tavern pictured in "Tavern League" is unique. How do you go about capturing the spirit of the place?

CC: I have been making pictures full time for 40 plus years. You learn to look and listen. I photograph only what interests me with the hope that I am not so unique that others find it boring.

WHS Press: What do you hope readers take away from "Tavern League?"

CC: This is a picture book which represents a body of work. This series of pictures was made to document, albeit very subjectively, a segment of society I find interesting. It is not a guide book, reference book or homage to tavern life. My intention was to share an experience and inform. I would hope that as a document it preserves in its small way a vanishing culture.

2012 National Indie Excellence Awards
Finalist in the Photography Category

2012 Next Generation Indie Book Awards
Finalist in the Coffee Table Book/Photography Category

2011 ForeWord Reviews' Book of the Year Awards
Finalist in the Photography Category

2011 Midwest Independent Publishers Association Midwest Book Awards
Winner in the Illustration-Photography Category
Finalist in the Midwest Regional Interest-Illustration Category

2011 USA National Best Book Awards
Finalist in the Photography: General Category

2012 PubWest Book Design Awards
Gold in the Photography Book Category

Author Interviews
Listen to Carl Corey's interview with Joy Cardin on Wisconsin Public Radio. This interview originally aired on July 8, 2011.

Listen to Carl Corey's interview with Cathy Wurzer on Minnesota Public Radio's "The Morning Edition." This originally aired July 13, 2011. Praise
Vincent Virga, renowned photo editor and author of "Eyes of the Nation: A Self-Portrait of the United States"

"Carl Corey's camera lens is a charmed circle. Once we enter its domain, he works his end upon our senses, and with his subjects we all stand spell-stopped. ...Yes, the mighty art of Carl Corey is to be treasured by all of us."

Mary Louise Schumacher, "Milwaukee Journal Sentinel"
"Carl Corey's photographs ... document iconic American places that are taken for granted . ... They are comforting images, places we know, but also eerie and remote, presented with a sense of romance and nostalgia that suggests they are already past."

George Slade, Program Manager and curator, Photographic Resource Center, Boston
"Carl Corey's photographs in this book conjure up the dark mysteries and deep pleasures of these boozy oases with respect and an appealing sense of familiarity. These are fond images, reflecting pride of place and a sense of community that is increasingly virtual and decentered in our hectic, 21st-century lives. Let's all hope 'last call' doesn’t come for many years; these taverns serve far more than drinks."

Todd J. Tubutis, Executive Director, Blue Sky, the Oregon Center for the Photographic Arts
"Tavern culture is slipping into a cluttered American past, but Carl Corey is present with his camera making sure we don't and won't forget. Even if you have never set foot in Wisconsin, these wistful photographs will resonate if you have ever frequented a public establishment to celebrate, to commiserate, or to just be around other folks. Corey's images are portraits of beloved places — a family album of sorts — warmly sympathetic and full of nuance. So pull up a bar stool, flip through these pages, and raise a glass to the friend you have always counted on: the neighborhood tavern."

Erin Petersen, "Third Coast Digest"
"Using only natural light, Corey’s images are imbued with a sense of familiarity and nostalgia. You can almost feel the vinyl bar stools soften under your weight as you belly up to the u-shaped bar of Club 53 in Amery. You can taste the Sunday potluck dinners during football season at places like The Sidetrack Saloon in Roberts. Essentially, his photos make the viewer feel like they’d been there before, and I suppose that can also be the strange magic of taverns like this. They are all different, and yet, they are all the same. These are the places where beer is cheap and mostly domestic, where Kessler is the house whiskey, and where the person behind the bar knows every detail of the community."

This feature by Chris Martell appeared in the "Wisconsin State Journal" on Sunday, June 19, 2011.

New book explores the neighborhood watering holes around the state

When it comes to taverns, no state beats Wisconsin. That's what Carl Corey claims. And it's what he documents in his new book of photography, "Tavern League: Portraits of Wisconsin Bars."

He traveled the state looking for well-established neighborhood taverns: places that are community gathering spaces where regulars share news about their days, play cards or dice and have a cup of coffee or a beer — everything modern sports bars are not.

"Sports bars are antisocial," Corey said. "They eliminate conversation, and everyone is watching on their own."

In these taverns, the main entertainment is face-to-face conversation and most have no music.

"They’re like the old pubs in Europe, where there’s only music if someone comes in with a fiddle or people start singing."

Only Pennsylvania approaches Wisconsin in bars with such character, said Corey, who moved to Hudson in 1994 seeking a more peaceful life after working in advertising in Chicago and Los Angeles.

All 60 taverns in the book are quirky and unique. But what they have in common is dedicated owners with deep roots in their communities. Some have been in the same family for generations, such as Wolski's on Pulaski Street in Milwaukee, in the family since 1913.

Corey drove around the state looking for such places and photographed 100 of them. "What's on the walls reflects camaraderie. You'll see announcements about what's going on in town," he said.

He photographed the premises and the owners but not the customers. Despite Wisconsin's reputation for heavy drinking, he encountered only one over-the-top drunk, a woman who at 8:30 a.m. pulled her pants down for the camera, which infuriated her boyfriend and caused a ruckus.

Lauri U'Ren, 44, owner of the Red Room in Dodgeville, was one of the tavern owners who most impressed Corey with her devotion to her work.

The Red Room opened in the early 1930s, and some of the men who show up at 5 a.m. every day for coffee, breakfast and euchre are in their 90s. Many regulars return later in the day, for afternoon card games or happy hour, and the young people show up to play pool and drink after 10 p.m. Beer is the beverage of choice for most patrons.

U'Ren, who bought the tavern 10 years ago, works 70 hours a week and has a staff of five, who are either family or old friends.

"Owners who succeed in this kind of business have to be good to people," she said. "You have to be there for them all the time and make them feel at home. People who want to open a bar or restaurant, but want to work only 40 hours a week, will fail. There is no personal life. This is it. But it's been fun."

If one of her regulars doesn't show up two days in a row, she checks on them because many are elderly. "I got a call once from a regular who said, 'I'm not coming in today and I didn't want you to worry.'"

In the foreword of the book, Wisconsin Historical Society architectural historian Jim Draeger writes of the social importance of Wisconsin's taverns, especially for immigrants from Germany, Ireland and Poland and their descendants: "For much of our history, workers lived in modest dwellings: small houses, apartments, and tenements with little space for gatherings of family and friends. Without family rooms, decks, and patios, Wisconsinites used the tavern as an extension of their own living rooms.

"Tavern owners responded to this longing for a home away from home by decorating their bars to reflect their interests as well as those of their patrons." Mounted deer heads, sometimes rows of them, may be the most common motif.

But even the most beloved old-timer bars are endangered, often shoved out by sports bar chains. The number of them has dropped sharply since the 1970s, as more people prefer to drink and socialize in their homes. Corey said even the bar pictured on the cover of his book was sold and will become a sports bar.

Notably absent from his book are neighborhood bars in Madison. "I'd assumed that all the bars in Madison were student bars," Corey said. "I was very wrong."

This review by Sam Whiting appeared in the "San Francisco Chronicle" on December 29, 2011.

Carl Corey: "Tavern League" a pub crawl in pictures

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."

This feature by Andy Rathbun appeared in the "Pioneer Press" on Sunday, June 19, 2011.

Wisconsin photographer captures the tavern culture

One evening a few years ago, Carl Corey shot a 10-minute exposure inside At Random, a Milwaukee bar he calls a "date lounge from the '60s." Red Christmas lights, the only light in the room, cast a dreamlike glow on the empty tufted-back booths and clear tabletops.

He didn't know it at the time, but that shot would become the first in a series that would take him across Wisconsin for two years - shooting what he calls "tavern culture."

"There's this whole culture of tavern that doesn't revolve around being drunk or over-drinking; it revolves around the social interaction that occurs there," Corey said. "They know that if they go there on Friday, the same people will be there. And they look forward to seeing those people."

Corey, 56, traveled from his rural Hudson, Wis., home to more than 100 bars around the state. Of the couple of hundred completed photographs from his trips, 60 will be featured in the book "Tavern League," being released July 1.

"A lot of the taverns that Carl has photographed are ones that have been around for a while," said Kathy Borkowski, director of the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, which is publishing the book. "They are in some ways the representation of the history of this cultural icon of Wisconsin taverns, as well as a marker of where we are right now."

Wisconsin has more liquor licenses per capita than any other state and some 11,000 taverns, according to the Tavern League of Wisconsin.

"Taverns in Wisconsin have always been gathering places," Borkowski said. "They've often been the places where political discussions go on, where communities come together. I think Carl's photos capture that."

Borkowski said the Wisconsin Historical Society Press decided to publish the book because it captures taverns as they are now and, in some cases, have been for decades.

"We felt like it was a nice fit for us because our mission here is collecting, preserving and sharing our stories, and I think this book does all those things all at once," she said.

The taverns Corey chose for the series appear to have been largely untouched by modern times. Corey said he made a conscious decision to avoid taverns that are filling their walls with large, flat-screen televisions. For Corey, the tavern should be about socialization, not staring at a screen.

"It's important that people don't lose sight of how important it is for people to be face to face with each other," he said.


Many of the photographs in the tavern series are portraits of bar owners or images of empty tables and chairs. Corey, a Chicago native, said he uses emptiness in his photographs so the viewer can place himself or herself in the environment.

It's increasingly difficult to run a family business, Corey said, and he believes taverns as they are - at least as they're represented in his photographs - will one day go away. Still, he said, the owners he met on his journeys enjoy their work despite the difficulties.

"The tavern owners all seemed really happy," he said. "They love what they do because of the interactions they have...with their patrons."

Corey, who worked in commercial photography until a decade ago, has exhibited the Tavern League series in other parts of the country but not in the Twin Cities area. He said there has been more interest in his work on the coasts.

Molly Toberer, director of Rosegallery in Santa Monica, Calif., said she has sold a number of prints from the "Tavern League" series and Corey's "For Love and Money" series, which focuses on family-owned Wisconsin businesses.

"I think they are sort of exotic here," she said of the subjects. "They're depicting something that is not of the West Coast. They are totally foreign to people."

Some of the interest in Corey's prints, which start at about $2,000, comes from Wisconsin natives who have moved to the West Coast, Toberer said.

"They are very familiar with the pride of the places...they understand it. They grew up there," she said. "I think it's a little bit of nostalgia."

Corey has been taking pictures for more than 40 years.

He said he originally wanted to be a jazz drummer but couldn't get into music school because of less-than-adequate vocal skills. So he began to focus on photography - a pursuit for which one must be "unbelievably passionate" to create a career, he said.

In 1994, while he was still doing commercial work, he moved from Los Angeles to the Hudson area.

"I've always liked Wisconsin, and Minneapolis before 2000 was a hotbed of advertising," he said.

"The lifestyle - that's why I live here," Corey said, adding that the region is "really rich for me as a photographer."

This feature by Bill Glauber appeared in the "Milwaukee Journal Sentinel" on Thursday, August 18, 2011.
View the original article here

Book raises a glass to enduring taverns

"Tavern League: Portraits of Wisconsin Bars" taps into state's special way of life

The perfect tavern is cozy, familiar and local, a place for conversation and camaraderie. Not too big, not too small, just the right size, with a worn bar, comfortable stools and a smattering of tables.

And, of course, the perfect tavern is somewhere in Wisconsin.

"All those places are filled with regulars," says photographer Carl Corey, who spent parts of two years ambling around the state in search of taverns that define just a bit of what it means to live in Wisconsin.

Corey's photographs are on display in the new book " Tavern League: Portraits of Wisconsin Bars."

From an old favorite in Hudson (Bob Smith's Sports Club) to a workingman's spot in Sturgeon Bay (the Red Room), Corey has created a unique photographic collection of taverns and their keepers.

It's a world of neon lights and trophy deer, a bowling alley here and a pool table there, mirrors that shimmer and glasses that glisten, and overseeing it all, the owners and workers who toil to keep alive a business and a way of life.

The book is part document, part elegy.

"There is no doubt it will have to change or it will fade out," Corey says of the tavern.

That's a theme reflected upon in the book's introduction by architectural historian Jim Draeger of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Draeger notes how "tavern culture helps define the Wisconsin experience." These are family-owned gathering spots and "as a result, tavern owners have been staunchly individualistic, resisting attempts to standardize, franchise and homogenize their spaces."

But the tavern faces competition.

"During my time as a patron and observer of old-timer bars, significant changes have occurred in their location, demographics and use," Draeger writes. "Many of our taverns' once important social roles have been replaced. Taverns no longer function as a necessary extension of our living rooms."

Still, they thrive in big cities and rural towns.

And they survive on the pages of Corey's book.

He got the idea for the project while taking photographs of At Random in Milwaukee. "It struck me there is something more to these taverns and that I should explore it," says Corey, 57, raised in Chicago and a longtime resident of Hudson.

Between the summers of 2008 and 2010, Corey set out on several trips across the state, bunking down in a camper, poking his head into taverns, speaking with owners, leaving his card and coming around the next day to take photographs.

He sought ambience, an aesthetic.

He took his photos in the morning, rounding up owners, bartenders.

"It was about them and their bar, what they gave the community," he says.

At the Red Room in Sturgeon Bay, he met third-generation owner Nick Hoffman. Corey's photo of Hoffman reflects warmth, the barman as friend.

"I think he captured the historic aspect of an old-school tavern," Hoffman says of Corey's work.

"With the book, it kind of keeps your imagination open," he says. "You see a corner with a table and a jukebox and you want to figure out the rest of it, what's not in the scene."

Hoffman hopes Corey's book helps others understand the value of the local tavern. In a world of loud sports bars and franchised operations, there remains a special space for the simple tavern, a place of taps and mixed drinks, where a family pitches in to run the show.

"We just keep it simple," Hoffman says.

So does Corey.

His work isn't fussy. It tells a story, cleanly, simply.
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