We Have a State Photo?

The colored version, the kind that hung in my grandparent’s dining room, painted over by Eric Enstrom’s daughter Rhoda Nyberg

So, MNopedia, that great resource for Minnesota history online, has just posted my second article, and only today it was reposted by MinnPost as well, so I’m pretty well chuffed! This was an interesting (that well worn Minnesota term) topic for me to research. Watching the response the article online so far has been interesting too, so I’m posting a little bit of a personal reflection behind my research, stuff a tad too subjective for a peer reviewed article.

I first wrote on Grace, Minnesota’s official state photograph, for a class in Mythology in American History, and much mythology surrounds this “painting” after the ninety or so years it has existed. A quick and informative look at how myths operate in modern American culture can be seen in this episode of PBS’ Idea Channel. As a total agnostic coming from a Lutheran background, I had a distinct mixture of feelings as I delved into the history behind Grace. As I researched, I discovered that the story behind it, while ostensibly simple, was filled with rumors, hearsay, and myths. Like many, I associated the picture with relatives, in my case, my grandparents. Like many, it seems, I had taken the image to be an oil painting, rather than the skilled photograph it is. What does it say about us that this is Minnesota’s official photographic representation of who we are as a state?

It was, for years, a fixture at my grandparents place. The picture hung in a place of prominence on the dining room wall of their tiny, musty house in Winona, Minnesota. As the bluffs loomed over the Mississippi, the dingy old picture to us loomed over our grandparent’s lives. Like the squeaky guest beds and lefse for breakfast, the painting was emblematic of our visits to them; their favorite picture exemplified everything we understood about my grandparents. It was an extension of their personalities and a favorite topic of conversation for Grandma. Grandpa had less to say about it, but, then, he had less to say about everything. Still, it had to have meant something to him, as he had the final say in everything around the house. He had no doubt hung the painting there himself soon after moving into the old house. It remained in the same place for decades, beginning sometime in the sixties, it is certain, until my grandfather passed away in 2005. My Grandmother took it with her to her new apartment, where it again took prominence in the decor, hung above the dining table. It remains there today, slightly faded, a little the worse for the wear with scattered water damage from some unremembered spill but still a centerpiece in the room. Where did it come from?

The year was 1918. The United States of America had finally entered the Great War, what would only later, after yet another war, be called World War I. Even in the middle of the isolated northern forest the events occurring in the killing fields of Europe were striking close to home. In the village of Bovey, Minnesota, a mining town in the heart of the Iron Range far to the north of Winona, a Swedish born photographer name Eric Enstrom attempted to capture a picture for the time and end up creating an image of the Minnesota experience. Charles Wilden, an elderly, homeless man peddling shoe scrapers stopped by one day trying to sell his wares. Something about the weathered, bearded Swede trying to sell him orthopedic devices inspired the small town photographer, and he asked Wilden to sit for him with a few props. The resulting photo, which Enstrom later called “Grace,” captured the sentiments of the region. Something about it seemed to speak to the Midwestern soul. At least, this is the story as told be Enstrom himself, as other reports list the photo as not having been taken until 1920, two years after the end of the Great War. Still, the connection worked.

Enstrom, and his daughter, Rhoda Nyberg, painted over the original photograph to give it the classic look of an oil painting, which only increased its popularity. By 1926, Wilden had sold his image to Enstrom for the grand total of five dollars. Enstrom, in turn, sold the photograph to Augsburg Publishing House, the largest Lutheran publisher in the world, who printed hundreds of thousands of copies over the years. The photo is now in the public domain, but Augsburg, among other printers, continue to sell it. The eventual fate of the homeless Wilden remains, in this story, unknown.

During my childhood, I associated the picture with my grandparents alone, having little reason to think it existed outside of their lives. However, I began to see the same picture elsewhere; an old Lutheran church in Iowa, a small town restaurant in Wisconsin, the bookstore of a small religious college in Minnesota. Describing it to friends and acquaintances throughout Minnesota, it seemed that many people could recall that the same picture hung in the homes of many of their own parents and grandparents as well. What was it about this picture that seemed to appeal to several generations of Midwesterner?

It all came to a head in 2002, when the Minnesota State Legislature, under Governor Jesse Ventura himself, established Grace as the state’s official photograph. Like our state drink (milk) and our state muffin (blueberry), we would now have a state photo to represent us, and it was a photo of an old white man praying. I was surprised to find very little controversy regarding the choice, in spite of the overt Christian religious nature of the photograph, and a legislator said it was a simply a picture of an “elderly person showing his feelings.” I must admit, I am not entirely comfortable with the message this sends. It is obvious, after looking through the many comments in the social media accounts of the article, that for many Minnesotans, it remains an important part of their lives, a meaning that goes beyond the societal into the personal; they see their own families and their own history in this image. For many, including myself, the guy in the picture represents nothing less than their own relatives. Some, in fact, had the childhood impression that he actually was related to them or to someone close to them, a grandfather or a family friends’ uncle. 

Like all photographs, this one was setup to convey a specific feeling  The “Grace” picture was carefully crafted by Eric Enstrom to put forward a very specific type of feeling; a spirit of religious faith, thankfulness, and humbleness that many European immigrants to Minnesota wanted to present of themselves. Enstrom said “this man did not have much in the way of earthly goods, but he has more than most people because he has a thankful heart.” The rumors that surround Wilden himself, though, paint a different picture; that of a shiftless alcoholic, a womanizing petty criminal known for breaking up families from Moorhead to St. Paul. Perhaps an older version of the man with whom my great grandmother was supposed to have run away. Not exactly what you would call a “holy” man, but in fact homeless man who signed his very image away for the paltry sum of five bucks. Interesting how such a conflicted figure, a man known for such cruelty, living his life in poverty with substance abuse issues, has become so many people’s vision of Minnesotan faith. Now, he’s everyone’s grandpa.    

Honestly, I cannot say I ever liked the picture. While I wouldn’t have been able to express this during childhood, it always struck me as being rather depressing. On the other hand, it fascinated me, and it had an almost Medieval effect upon my mood. That old guy just sitting there alone at his table, eating what was no doubt stale bread and gruel, it was certainly lonely. Even in my church going days, such fervent prayer as evoked by this man was alien to me. What does it say about the culture of the state that this is now our official photograph, the official representative of our place and its people? We’re white, obviously, but also old. We’re devout and Protestant (I wonder if the picture has the same impact among Catholics that it does among Lutherans). We’re not fancy. In other words, humble. Even the few possessions we own, we give thanks for, because it could always get worse, you know.

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