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Picture this

My wife once asked me why we print photo essays in the magazine. “Photos are everywhere online and everyone has a camera these days,” she said. “So, why bother?” 

While she was playing devil’s advocate (Liz knows I love photography), she had a point. According to the annual Internet Trends report by tech guru Mary Meeker, in 2014 alone people uploaded an average of 1.8 billion digital images every single day. With 657 billion photos per year added to the photographic catalog of life on Earth, why bother with a dozen or so in the magazine? 

I guess I see the ubiquity of photography as a reason to commit to publishing images created by professionals, and showing them in our James Watrous Gallery, so that people can interact with them on their own terms—and in their own time.

In this issue we feature the work of photographer Stephen Milanowski, whose candid images of everyday people at public events capture a certain raw humanity that is rare in most portraiture.

Back in August, I met with Steve at his studio in Middleton to talk about his work and review some possible photographs for this issue. Steve has been making images for over forty years, and he has a massive collection of large-format prints. What got my attention right away, though, was a series of images he had taken at a 2016 rally in Janesville for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

While fascinated by the portraits he made of people both for and against Trump, I quickly realized that these images weren’t a good fit for the magazine. Why? Because one of my main rules for magazine articles is that they need to complicate our understanding of who we are as Wisconsinites and, perhaps more to the point, human beings. 

For some of our readers (myself included), it would be difficult to see Trump supporters—clad in profanity-laden t-shirts and American flag-themed sweaters—as anything other than representative of the current political moment.

Perhaps, when this moment has passed, we’ll be able to look at Steve’s Trump rally photos and see these people for who they are: our friends and neighbors, our fellow Americans.


From 2008 to 2021 Jason A. Smith was the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of its quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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