Be Here Now

A documentary show at the Minnesota Historical Society captures the state of the state, one second at a time

The 120 black-and-white pictures in the Minnesota Historical Society's "Minnesota 2000" exhibit imply a kind of challenge to the viewer. The dozen photographers who took these documentary shots (and 240 others) in a three-year project across the state each came upon a moment and claimed it for the lens--leaving out what came before, and would come after. What the images attest to is the visual urgency of a scene. The flush of sunburn across the bridge of a pale white nose. The percussive beat of a machine thrumming in the foreground. There are half-formed stories here all around us, about some day in someone's life, somewhere in the state. Go ahead and find the rest out for yourself.

Heat and dust emanate from a photo of a foundry worker taking a break during a hot July day in Minneapolis. The shot feels as if it could have been taken a century ago. But the Nike swoosh on the shirt of the worker and the fact that the subject is a black woman reveal that this is contemporary, from the summer of 1998, taken while the woman was on a break trying to escape the heat inside the Acme Foundry. The photograph, part of David Parker's "Industrial Workers" series, illuminates that, while the technological revolution is in high gear, the industrial age will never vanish. A wash of varying grays complements the woman's plaintive and vulnerable look. Though Parker returned to the foundry, he never found her again.

 

Bring the bliss: Keri Pickett's "Body Piercing at Bionic Lab, Minneapolis, January 1999"
Bring the bliss: Keri Pickett's "Body Piercing at Bionic Lab, Minneapolis, January 1999"

A mammoth drill looms large in the right of the frame in a photograph from Stephen Dahl's "Telecommunications Workers." One hardhatted man is pushing up against it like a modern-day Atlas, while other laborers stand frozen in the background, dissipating into the snow-filled left side of the frame. There's a poetry to the way this shot from last year juxtaposes physical labor and the white-collar world it is serving: This crew is laying fiber-optics cable along an old railroad line in south Minneapolis. The workers are essentially migrants, moving on within a matter of weeks to similar jobs in other states. The railroad tracks eventually draw a viewer's eyes to the far-off horizon--perhaps toward the workers' next destination.

 

Two ragged men, boat dockers at the annual North American Walleye Anglers' fishing tournament, stare unflinchingly at the viewer in Thomas Arndt's "Fishing Contest Workers, Red Wing, September 1998." The one on the left, in a long beard and sunglasses, looks like a ZZ Top roadie. The other, on the right in the foreground, is corpulent and mustachioed. They were saving to buy a boat of their own to enter in the tournament. An expanse of gray water, trees, and white northern sky looms behind them, dwarfing their eager expressions. Perhaps the money came together the next year.

 

Two photographs from Chris Faust's series, "The Minnesota River Valley": "Campers in a Renville County Park, near Morton, June 1998" and "Doug Knute Fishing on the Minnesota River, near Belle Plaine, January 1998." In the first, two Mankato State students, shirtless and pasty, command a makeshift kingdom of tents, tiki torches, coolers, and grills, waiting for their camping buddies to show up. The second photograph shows Knute fishing in the dead of winter. To his right is a gas-powered drill to pierce the ice; down the river behind him are clusters of men fishing in camaraderie. But Knute, sitting alone on a plastic bucket amid a desolate blanket of white, stares hopefully straight down at his line.

 

A low-slung midday sun illuminates a fresh snow, naked trees, and contoured hills in one of David Heberlein's "State Parks Visitors" photographs. Spiderlike shadows poke out from the left of the frame, while white hills swell and fall in the background. The spindly shadows from the trees lead to the center of the shot, a woman sitting outside on a park bench, reading the newspaper. There's the urge to spy over her shoulder.

 

A teenage girl is getting her nipple pierced. The angles in the shot, titled "Body Piercing at Bionic Lab, Minneapolis, January 1999" from Keri Pickett's "Teenagers" series, are exaggerated with a fisheye lens, making them appear nearly abstract. The girl's boyfriend, on the right, cannot bear to watch and looks out of the right of the frame in anguish. Her mother stands behind her--either comforting her daughter or holding her down. The piercing artist, coming from the left of the frame, closes in for the strike. One's eye wanders to the center of the whirlwind--not the exposed breast, but the girl's face, which, eyes closed, thin lips smooth and parted, beams beatifically.

 

Two shots in Peter Latner's "Main Streets": One photo from July 1998 shows a group of teen skate punks in Walker, Minnesota, decked out in NoFX T-shirts and Prodigy-style haircuts while a Main Street right out of Mayberry bustles with activity behind them. Below that is a shot taken at a barbershop in Ortonville in September 1997. An elderly man in a porkpie hat and overalls nods off in the far background of the photo, illuminated by the storefront window, seemingly oblivious to the scores of hunting rifles mounted on the wood-paneled wall above him. In the forefront, a bespectacled barber shaves the neck of a newly flat-topped customer. The street outside the window is empty.

 

Two elderly men in Sansabelt slacks and white slip-on spats sit patiently, stiffly, at a table to the right of the frame. Coming from the left are shelves and racks of clothing, nearly piled to the ceiling, rolling like an avalanche toward the men. The scene is from Terry Gydesen's "Men Waiting for Wives, Shopping, Fort Myers, Florida, 1995." Warm, exterior light beams in from a window to the right like an intruder. The men sit in the shop without speaking, staring blankly ahead. The shot feels dry, claustrophobic, stifling: There is no air here.

The photograph is shot from the inside of a limo, through a tunnel of carpeting on the ceiling, faux-crystal bottles of alcohol, a television, and a mile of Corinthian leather. A newlywed couple, Donovan and Terry, shrink into the back seat. The bride smiles at the camera, proud but tentative. The groom, in a tux, goatee, slicked-back hair, and tinted shades, peers through his passenger window to the right of the frame--looking for an out from this connubial cavern. A caption next to this Joe Allen photo from his "Urban Indian" series explains the following: The couple was separated mere months after the wedding.

 

Tom Jenkins, with a mustache, bowl haircut, and slight paunch, holds a bundled baby while flanked by a woman and two smiling employees in greasy mechanic's togs. Tools hang straight and shiny on a wall in the background of Mark Jensen's "Jenkins Family and Employees, the Wonderful Muffler Man, Roseville, November 1997." There's a No Smoking sign on a heater overhead. Dust and a bank of fluorescent lights cast gray shadows. A fender juts in from the lower left of the frame, its hubcap revealing the car to be a Mercedes.

 

George Byron Griffiths's "Shelly Moen Plans Dinner Via Cellular Phone, Eden Prairie, July 8, 1999," is all suburban angst and technological trappings, a scene spit-shined in a manner that seems both inhuman and touching. While Moen laughs into a cell phone in the driver's seat of an SUV--one hand on the wheel, white skirt bunched up around her thighs--her two sons stick to the leather back seat. Both are dressed in golf shirts and twill shorts, and have perfectly parted blond hair. They're modern, affluent clones of Dennis the Menace. The older boy plays a Gameboy, the younger looks straight ahead. A doll of Austin Powers's Dr. Evil teeters between them.

 

"Women in Polo's Cantina, St. James, June 1999" from Wing Young Huie's "Diversity in Rural Minnesota." Two Latino women, overweight and overly made-up, sit on cheap chairs at a table littered with Bud Light bottles, a half-filled pitcher of beer, empty Marlboro Light boxes, full ashtrays, and car keys. The woman on the right side looks out of the frame with chagrin. The other is centered in the frame, with the folds of her belly jutting toward the camera; she's smiling widely and warmly. In the background, above her head, is a Budweiser poster with five leggy Latinas sitting at a bar. The slogan on the poster reads: "Let's Fiesta."

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