In the preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman famously asserted, “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” While Whitman certainly went a long way toward proving that claim in his own work, it was not until the 20th century, when photographers like Walker Evans and Robert Frank set out to document American life, that we had the necessary visual evidence to establish it as a fact. Now, in the 21st century, along comes Carl Corey, a camera in his backpack and sturdy boots on his feet, walking the Yellowstone Trail through the American Midwest and determined to capture, preserve, and transmit through photography the essence of whatever it is that makes these United States the greatest poem.
Working in gloriously subtle color, Corey has compiled a series of images accompanied by pithy, thought-provoking captions that succeed both as gentle satire and as heartfelt homage. In one image, a poofy white poodle looks expectantly out of a picture window, unaware of how closely he resembles both the plastic snowman in the planter below him and the wrapped boles of the miniature tree in front of this otherwise anonymous brick ranch house in Colby, Wisconsin. The caption further inflects the image with this observation: “Dogs are great because they know, but do not tell.”
Corey is a masterful portrait photographer. For example, his portfolio For Love and Money, which documents the proprietors of Wisconsin-based businesses that have been family owned and operated for at least 50 years, is as strong a series of situational portraits as you will find anywhere. But in Americaville, Corey’s more interested in the odd things that people leave behind, the unintentionally ironic monuments that reveal the contradictions we carry around all the time. One climax of this tendency comes in a shot that captures a life-sized crucifix surrounded by horn-tooting angels and surmounted by the American flag. Corey’s caption? “Erin Corner, Wisconsin, ‘The government of the United States is not, by any sense, founded on the Christian religion.’” “Yes,” one wants to say, “and this is not a pipe.” It’s in these wonderfully strange yet familiar moments of All-American surrealism that Corey’s work achieves the poetry America challenges us to find.