Wisconsin Death Trip
November 15, 2009 10:22 PM   Subscribe

Charles Van Schaick was a photographer in Black River Falls, Wisconsin in the late 19th and early 20th Century. His work was made famous by Michael Lesy in the book Wisconsin Death Trip in which the photographs were juxtaposed with local newsreports of murder, suicide, disease, insanity, animal mutilation and other calamities plus the occasional non-morbid event. Flickr set of photos used in Wisconsin Death Trip. Some of the texts from Wisconsin Death Trip. Robert Birnbaum interviews Michael Lesy about Wisconsin Death Trip and other things. Over 2500 photographs by Charles Van Schaick owned by The Wisconsin Historical Society. [Warning: Some of the photographs are of deceased infants]
posted by Kattullus (20 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Full disclosure: I spent a winter as an exchange student at Hampshire College but never met Professor Lesy, as far as I can remember.
posted by Kattullus at 10:23 PM on November 15, 2009


Man, I used to love that book. Not sure what happened to my copy.

I was always a bit put off by the framing of the material by Lesy but it was very effective in lodging it in my mind. I don't think I ever took the time to formulate why Lesy's framing struck me as irresponsible or disrespectful, exactly. I think mostly I wanted a more scholastic, less impressionistic approach.

In hindsight, this is silly of me, as, for example, I have never looked askance at Harry Smith's approach to curating the Anthology. But then again he lived and died a poor man, dependent on 'loans' from friends, despite the enormous impact of his work.
posted by mwhybark at 10:36 PM on November 15, 2009


"the intent was something different. The text was to be a soundtrack. The ideal image was the Walker Evans/James Agee book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In that regard, the Wisconsin Death Trip was a complete failure." - Lesy

Yeah, that's it exactly. But this failure always struck me as predictable, and therefore explotative - but not in the manner of Anthology or Faster Pussycat Kill Kill. If the intent was to produce a time-travel incarnation of Agee, it strikes me, titling the book something other than Wisconsin Death Trip might have been a well-considered approach.

Of course, if that had happened, I never would have even looked at the thing.
posted by mwhybark at 10:47 PM on November 15, 2009


I didn't see the film, and I had no idea that it had been made into a musical until just now. Weird.

Cool, but... weird.

I've had this book for years; it's good to see the photos online, as my book is pretty old and faded. Not from being borrowed, though. No one in my circles likes this book for some reason, and as such, it's never been borrowed -- not one time. I've always like it. Thanks for this post.
posted by heyho at 11:26 PM on November 15, 2009


In hindsight, this is silly of me, as, for example, I have never looked askance at Harry Smith's approach to curating the Anthology. But then again he lived and died a poor man, dependent on 'loans' from friends, despite the enormous impact of his work.

This seems like a total non sequitur to me. How does someone's economic success/advantage relate to your perception of how they presented the material? It's not like Wisconsin Death Trip is Faces of Death or some other kind of crass exploitation mass-market thingy--either you like it or you don't like it, but Lesy's holding a job as a college professor doesn't seem to me to be a factor in whether you like it or not.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:58 PM on November 15, 2009


Also, everyone should buy a copy of Wisconsin Death Trip as far as I'm concerned. Between that and Strange Red Cow, you get a good cross-section of the deep weirdness of American newspapers.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:02 AM on November 16, 2009


And the deep weirdness of Wisconsin. It is a strange place.
posted by louche mustachio at 12:15 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


for reasons passing understanding (although they only passed my understanding over a decade later, when I actually read "Wisconsin Death Trip"), my grandparents willingly retired to Black River Falls. Nothing out of sorts happened up there on my many visits, apart from the presence of a large, orange, fiberglass moose at a travel plaza.

Although grandma died of a heart attack one room over from me when I was up there for New Year's Eve 1991-1992 and grandpa slowly developed Alzheimer's-type symptoms. Oh, and Yog Sothoth rose from R'yleh, where dead C'thulhu lay dreaming.

I'd say it was something in the water, but there's always been so damned much iron in the water in BRF that it's doubtful anything else could survive.

All this is intended to say, while Black River Falls has it's idiosyncrasies, it's really not much weirder than any other small town in the Midwest.
posted by StrangeTikiGod at 2:20 AM on November 16, 2009


Today he'd be working for Rupert Murdoch.
posted by not_on_display at 4:19 AM on November 16, 2009


Lesy is so cool. I love this: But then again, you get a guy like [Ken] Burns. Burns is a teacher. He has a proper liberal agenda that he wants to teach. So —Burns is close to what I do. But, I have different methods and agendas. I am a teacher—but I think I'm a much more subversive teacher [than he is]. I much more inclined—much more interested in creating wonder and fear and amazement and confusion than to preach, "We should treat people justly." Burns is a much nicer man than I am.
posted by Faze at 4:57 AM on November 16, 2009


Wisconsin Death Trip has always made me feel good. It's !shocking!, sure, but also I find it deeply reassuring that people back then in the good old days, did stuff that was just as fucked up and crazy as now. (Or back in the late 80's, when I first came across it and the world was a much less warm and fuzzy place than today. That's right, back in the day, when I was a kid, I had to walk to school up hill, in the snow both ways and we lived in a box in a ditch...)

Never thought twice about who might have compiled the thing. Thanks.
posted by From Bklyn at 5:27 AM on November 16, 2009


I recently bought my wife the book and movie of WDT. She absolutely loves that sort of stuff. She used some of the newspaper accounts in the book as inspiration for a short story.
posted by battleshipkropotkin at 6:59 AM on November 16, 2009


You forgot the Static-X tag.
posted by GoingToShopping at 7:45 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sidhedevil: "doesn't seem to me to be a factor in whether you like it or not."

I'm pretty sure you mean you it seems to you it shouldn't be, because it is, in fact, a factor in how I respond to the works.
posted by mwhybark at 8:29 AM on November 16, 2009


louche mustachio : And the deep weirdness of Wisconsin. It is a strange place.

As someone who has lived in this state for my whole life, let me just point out that we are not weird. We are a completely normal body of people simply reacting to a very strange universe
by eating cheese in quantities that would be lethal to an average person and suspiciously watching everyone around us trying to decide who is and who isn't a serial killer.
posted by quin at 10:23 AM on November 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm pretty sure you mean you it seems to you it shouldn't be, because it is, in fact, a factor in how I respond to the works.

I meant the generic "you" there, not thinking that anyone would actually enjoy a book more because the author died broke, or less because the author had a steady job.

And you have surprised me! Well, it's a great big world and full of different people with different responses to different things, and you're as entitled to your opinions as I am to mine.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:25 AM on November 16, 2009


Best name ever.
posted by Lou Stuells at 11:54 AM on November 16, 2009


I always thought there was something a little odd about JoanArkham.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:20 PM on November 16, 2009


As someone who has lived in this state for my whole life, let me just point out that we are not weird.

I don't currently reside there, but I'm from Waushara County. I grew up just outside of Coloma. And I'm kind of weird, but I'll grant that this may be the exception rather than the rule.

We are a completely normal body of people simply reacting to a very strange universe
Sometimes in strange ways, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

by eating cheese in quantities that would be lethal to an average person

Cheese is damn delicious, and there is an abundant supply.

and suspiciously watching everyone around us trying to decide who is and who isn't a serial killer.

We aren't just worried about them killing us, we are concerned they might eat us as well. And with all that perfectly good cheese around, too. It doesn't make any sense.
posted by louche mustachio at 1:48 PM on November 16, 2009


How does someone's economic success/advantage relate to your perception of how they presented the material? It's not like Wisconsin Death Trip is Faces of Death or some other kind of crass exploitation mass-market thingy--either you like it or you don't like it, but Lesy's holding a job as a college professor doesn't seem to me to be a factor in whether you like it or not.

To further muddy the waters, some of us found Lesy not so cool, though others of his erstwhile students' progress testify to his occasional ability to inspire.

What's the sum of a college writing professor (or any writer, really?) Lesy was known for making people cry in class; one student received an essay back with the first few pages slashed through with red, the next reading "Wretched prose, I can read no further," and the remainder left apparently untouched by his critical eye. The evaluation I myself received for his class was more his literary take on my life than it was useful feedback. I always felt his class set me back a few years in self-confidence.

Sometimes, it feels the only only appropriate response from his former students would be an anthology recalling his eccentricities, lashings-out, moments of inappropriate self-revelation, and classroom exhortations. ("Try sleeping in a graveyard! Try it! Try eating roadkill! Try it! TRY IT!")
posted by gusandrews at 7:26 PM on November 16, 2009


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