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For 30 years, two of the state’s most acclaimed photographers captured, in shadows and light, the everyday freakishness of Wisconsin’s people and places. A portrait of the artists.

A 2009 Self-Portrait of the artists at the Crab Apple Harvest in Whitelaw. Photo by J. Shimon & J. Lindemann

A 2009 Self-Portrait of the artists at the Crab Apple Harvest in Whitelaw. Photo by J. Shimon & J. Lindemann.

This story appears in the April 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Johnie Shimon and Julie Lindemann watch the snow fall in fat flakes from inside their Victorian home. It’s mid-January, and it’s been strangely warm in Appleton, where they work as fine art photographers and associate professors of art at Lawrence University. Johnie stands in the formal dining room, its walls painted burgundy, and flips through large color images produced on an inkjet printer at the college.

In one image, modern dancer and centenarian Barry Lynn strikes a fabulous pose in a turquoise silk kimono. In others, Julie poses on the couple’s farm with household objects – her bleached blond bob framing her face with the aid of her unmistakable cat-eye glasses. She’s pictured wearing an impressive assortment of black lingerie, with a smattering of leopard print thrown in for good measure. In one photo, she leans against a white-paned window, through which you can barely see the Manitowoc skyline, and in front of her is a pot of white tulips that has seen better days. A mesh flyswatter dangles opposite her; her furrowed brow breaks up the angular symmetry of her face.

Johnie flips to the next image of a woman, posing defiantly – dressed from the waist up as Rosie the Riveter’s sister – and sitting atop a 1956 pink Cadillac. A red bumper sticker reads “Jeri bomb,” and it matches her ruby locks. The woman is Jeri Olm, a friend of the photographers whom they’ve known since she was 19 and have photographed many times. She might be the closest thing they have to a muse, if they didn’t photograph nearly everyone who enters their periphery. Olm has cut and dyed Julie’s bobbed hair since the early ’90s; she is also the last subject the photographic duo made a portrait of together using the photographic “approach” they became known for. They shot her in 2013, when Julie still had the strength to handle the physical work of portrait photography.

Back in the dining room, Johnie keeps flipping through the images as Julie speaks from their living room, its forest green walls covered with paintings by Johnie, self-taught artists, famous photographers and their friends. As he flips, they begin discussing the Rockabilly movement, which counts both Jeri and her Cadillac as members, and where the current movement has strongholds.

Rockabilly, Johnie explains in his wry deadpan, is a group of mostly men whose deities are classic cars and pomade. The group counts members in Manitowoc, says Johnie, “and Las Vegas and Iowa,” Julie interjects matter-of-factly from the living room.

On that January day, Julie is reclining on a chair, wrapped in a plush leopard-print blanket, with her feet appearing occasionally in colorful tiger-striped socks. She stays reclined in her chair because her late-stage metastatic cancer, with which she was diagnosed in 2012, has spread to her hips, making it too uncomfortable to sit up straight. This doesn’t hinder her from chatting, almost without stopping, with her arms waving this way and that nearly the entire time.

Scenes like this – where Julie and Johnie seem to work together even in small talk – characterize the relationship that has changed contemporary photography in Wisconsin. Since the early 1980s, the couple has photographed what the mainstream has considered “outsiders,” and their documentation of the state’s changing landscape and its people has earned them acclaim far beyond the state line. But part of the allure is their singular artistic and life partnership that has long been the fuel in the tank of their classic car. In fact, their relationship has been a reflection of what others have described as an essence of love, respect and gentleness in their photos.

And in many ways, the two photographers are considered one: The couple shares an email address, a business card, a resume and a teaching position. When you’re around the duo, the first-person, plural tense is used almost exclusively in conversation (you get used to it), and since they started collaborating together at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1981, they have never spent a night apart.

“You can’t divide them,” says Graeme Reid, the director of collections at the Museum of Wisconsin Art. “There’s no such thing as a Julie photograph and a Johnie photograph.”

That’s the danger in what they’re going through now, Julie says. “We never had pets, never had children…we kept shoveling it all into the art.”

 

A Self-Portrait in the Garden at Dusk in Whitelaw in 1998. Photo by J. Shimon & J. Lindemann

A Self-Portrait in the Garden at Dusk in Whitelaw in 1998. Photo by J. Shimon & J. Lindemann.

Julie and Johnie grew up in rural Manitowoc County; Johnie, born in 1961, attended the high school in Mishicot and Julie, born in 1957, went to school in Valders. Johnie’s dad raised hogs and grew sod while his mother worked as a nurse; Julie’s dad made cheese and her mother was a homemaker. Both were members of 4-H, and Johnie was president of the local Future Farmers of America club, while Julie also participated in FHA, the Future Homemakers of America. Both, unbeknownst to each other at the time, found commonplace with Yoko Ono. They credit her with introducing them to Fluxus art, a movement popular in the early ’60s and ’70s that incorporated multimedia art, and, according to the Museum of Modern Art, encouraged viewer participation.

Julie, four years Johnie’s senior, eventually went to technical school for a couple years for marketing, and then landed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to get a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Johnie ended up at the university in Madison, too, where he studied art. Both separately knew Jim Vogel, who worked at Dr. Freud’s Institute of Fine Recordings in Manitowoc, the town they both would retreat to on breaks from Madison. Eventually, Julie studied abroad in London and spent a few months in a kibbutz, but when she returned, Vogel says, “she came back as punk rock.” These were the days of Lisa Birnbach’s The Official Preppy Handbook, so the punk aesthetic both Julie and Johnie embraced made them something like the outsiders they would later photograph.

This aesthetic, whether they liked it or not, became almost as well-known as their work. In their early years together, Julie favored ’50s-style dresses, but her look has almost always been some decade’s version of “retro.” Her clothing choices, she says, “always had to do with economics,” and the garb was usually sourced from thrift store dollar bins. Later on, her style morphed into something like a punk dominatrix, favoring patent leather and tiny nightgowns. These pieces emphasize her lanky frame and provide a cheeky contrast to their pastoral surroundings.

Johnie, on the other hand, wears mostly black, and his dusty blond hair has changed little since their Madison punk days. They both unfailingly wear thick-rimmed glasses of various styles. “When Johnnie and Julie walk into a room, you get the feeling that you are either in the presence of artists or time travelers,” Jeff Worman wrote in the Shepherd Express in 1989. Over time, their look has been described as “punk,” “goth” and, somewhat perplexingly, “German.”

Their appearances were just some of the reasons both stood out, Vogel says of “the two coolest people” he knew at the time. Julie and Johnie credit Vogel, who dabbles in art but now owns Dr. Freud’s, with introducing them, but he can’t remember exactly why. He suspects it had to do with the Los Angeles-based punk band X, whose record Julie gave to Vogel after someone left it at the pizza parlor where she worked at the time. Vogel listened to the record while Julie was in London, and eventually invited Johnie over to listen to it.

The couple’s first fateful interaction came when Johnie approached Julie to play drums in his punk band, the Stim-u-lies.

Julie, Vogel says, “was just barely capable on drums, but that, I think, was the lure.” She used the stage name “Julia,” and admits she couldn’t play at all, but she thought being unable to play was required for a spot in the ear-splitting band. And when Johnie “Pukeface” played, “it sort of seemed like he was maybe having an attack,” Vogel remembers.

The Stim-u-lies later morphed into Hollywood Autopsy, through which they released their eponymous LP record in late summer of 1983. The record, which was mixed by Nirvana’s Nevermind producer and Garbage band member Butch Vig, was described by a now-defunct underground music fanzine as “deliberately bad, artsily, anti-arty, aharmonic, and droning low-fi.”

The “project” – as they call all of their joint artistic ventures – was a little tongue-in-cheek, but taken very seriously. While simultaneously producing a zine called Catholic Guilt, the band enjoyed some success at the epicenter of Madison’s punk scene, and according to Vogel, they eventually opened for X. Last August, the LP was reissued and went on to sell 500 copies – something that greatly pleases the couple, especially Johnie.

The band dissolved when its members parted ways at the end of college and, newly released from the confines of academia, Johnie and Julie skipped graduation. In the fall of 1983, they moved to Jersey City Heights, N.J., and spent a lot of time in New York City’s East Village. Although their time in New York ultimately resulted in a decision to become Wisconsin-based artists, it was not without sadness.

Thanks to the East Village’s history of protests and bohemia, there was an “invasion” of young, idealistic dreamers, the couple recalls, but even though these aspiring creatives were there, “there wasn’t anything for them to say,” Johnie says. “They were just kind of refugees.”

On top of this, the AIDS epidemic had begun bleeding into New York and was making its way across the country. In 1983, according to the University of California-San Francisco, the total number of reported cases had reached 3,000 and claimed 1,000 lives. In the spring and summer of 1984, French and American professors would isolate the viruses that cause HIV, and autumn brought the Centers for Disease Control’s first recommendation to avoid needle sharing.

AIDS eventually reached the couple’s circle, Julie says, and they lost “a lot of their friends” to it, as well as to heroin overdoses.

So after roughly a year, in 1984, they packed up and moved home, their minds set on somehow becoming artists in Wisconsin.

They landed in Milwaukee and moved into an apartment on Humboldt Boulevard in Riverwest. They paid $240 for rent, drove “a $200 Rambler,” and got by on Julie’s full-time administrative assistant gig. Johnie supplemented their income with smaller projects – screen printing, one-off freelance photography gigs – until finally, Julie could no longer stand the full-time “black-hole” job and quit.

“It was a pretty risky thing to do,” she says of their lack of cash and having no alternative plan. “But I just knew I had to do it.”

Reading the classifieds one day soon after, she came across a listing for a position in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s marketing department. She went in for an interview, she says, and they hired her on the spot. Her boss was Alberta Darling, who is now a state senator.

The art museum is where Julie met Debra Brehmer, now the owner of Portrait Society Gallery, a sometimes-Milwaukee Magazine contributor, and also Julie and Johnie’s exclusive gallerist. In September 1986, Brehmer founded Art Muscle, a free magazine that featured critical analysis, show reviews and art-scene gossip. Today, the Art Muscle issues serve as a time capsule of an art scene that was once vibrant, connected and motivated. Its contributors and subjects, meanwhile, have become the gatekeepers of Milwaukee’s modern arts scene. Julie and Johnie’s projects and happenings were a source of fodder for the magazine, at a time when the Milwaukee Art Museum’s exhibition lineup included contemporary luminaries such as Andy Warhol and Julian Schnabel.

“There was more energy at the art museum than I’ve ever seen since,” Brehmer says of the era.

The more Julie and Johnie became exposed to the world of the art museum, the more they fine-tuned their own career perspective. Museum staff eventually asked whether the duo would like to photograph events at the museum as a way to make extra cash, which they very much needed. This allowed them to be flies on the wall, Julie says, and watch artists hobnob with major donors and curators. “Oh, people are artists,” Julie says they realized. “You can do that.”

Around the same time, they started freelancing in a photojournalistic capacity, including for this magazine and the Shepherd Express. They bought old cameras because they didn’t have enough money for newer versions, and as a result, they began teaching themselves antiquarian photo processes for developing film. Their first feature-length photo assignment for Milwaukee Magazine was writer Jim Romenesko’s 1987 “Life at The Norman,” a story of the Wisconsin Avenue apartment building’s eccentric inhabitants. Julie and Johnie’s corresponding portraits featured the residents with their possessions: In one image, a resident stands inside her “guest” coffin with her pet snake, and in another, a resident dons a gas mask and a rubber smock that reads “I hate you.” In the images, the residents’ faces are sober, sometimes heavy with shadows, and it’s clear that their belongings and living spaces contextualize the eccentricities, often in ways words can’t. The subjects were wary of these journalistic intruders, Romenesko recalls, but Julie and Johnie put them at ease. Julie and Johnie worked together “seamlessly,” he says, “almost as if they were one.

“I could always trust their photography would match my words,” says Romenesko, who now reports on the media for his eponymous website.

Later, some of those words described a woman he calls “a nutty bookseller” who wore a bad wig. She talked to herself and was someone you could “easily make fun of,” Romenesko says. But Julie and Johnie treated her kindly “without demeaning her.” They walked that fine line with their oddball subjects, he says, “but they were always on the right side of it.”

Romenesko eventually asked the couple to speak to his journalism classes at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In his classes, “the jocks thought they were too out there,” Romenesko remembers. “Almost Amish,” he said another student told him. And yet, another proclaimed Julie and Johnie were the first “goths” she’d ever met.

Speaking to Romenesko’s classes eventually helped the couple get comfortable with the idea of teaching and was an influential factor when they taught classes at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in 1989, and later as professors at Lawrence. Although they began at Lawrence as part-time instructors, the two were granted a joint assistant professorship in 2000. Now, because of Julie’s cancer, Johnie stands alone in their shared classroom.

Yet teaching at Lawrence and MIAD helped them “indulge in research,” Julie says, and they tried to encourage their students to “dig deep” to find their own message that can only be transmitted through art. Consequently, they also learned through their students that not everyone is cut out for the life of an artist.

“Every art professor dreams their students will pursue art with great passion, but that is rare and requires sacrifices that not everyone is willing to make,” Julie wrote in an email. “And that’s OK.”

 

Bjorn Nasett, whose drag name is B.J. Daniels, has been photographed by the duo many times since meeting them in the 1970s arts scene in Madison. (He has also been a community blogger for milwaukeemag.com.) They ran in the same circles, and it was only a matter of time before he sat in front of their lens. Beginning in the ’80s, they shot him multiple times dressed in glamorous drag, and in 1998, they made a portrait of him in his regular clothes with his parents on their farm. “Bjorn had retired as a female impersonator after most of his friends had died of AIDS,” the image’s caption reads. “He worked hard to establish a hair salon in Milwaukee that merged social consciousness, art and personal construction. Still, he’d take the time to visit his parents on Sundays to help them butcher chickens or maintain their garden.”

It’s easy to see why the former rural Manitowoc farm kids were drawn to Nasett as a subject. One image of him in full makeup, posing topless with lips barely pouted, even appears in the 2001 coffee table book Milwaukee: City by the Waters. In the image, Nasett’s outfit contains not much more than combat boots, a top hat, and a steampunk-esque skirt.

They’ve even made a “pseudo documentary” of their photographic process, with Nasett as their model. In the video, Nasett looks directly into the large-format camera as Johnie prepares the equipment – a physically intense job – and Julie adjusts the lighting. Besides Johnie’s guitar playing, the only sounds in the film are created by the picture-making progress: the snap of shutter, the gargle of water, and swishes of chemicals in the darkroom as Johnie moves methodically through the processing stages.

When they’ve photographed Nasett, usually with Johnie under the black sheet, crouched behind the large-format camera, and Julie acting as a sort of art director or relaxing the subject, “there’s a warmth there that’s different,” Nasett says. The warmth is evident in thousands of their images, and it’s something nearly everyone interviewed for this story mentioned. It’s in this way, they say, that Julie and Johnie’s work differs from that of Diane Arbus, whose divisive portraits of “freaks” have been called sensationalized. “They respect their subjects,” MOWA’s Reid says, and they’re not condescending.

“[Johnie and Julie] make it about the subject, not about themselves,” Nasett says. “That’s probably why they’re not bigger.”

Although their work hasn’t brought them a fiscal windfall, it’s been enough to sustain them. Julie says that a different career course never really occurred to them because there had always been encouragement in some form, from arts grants to their own exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Lawrence, too, Julie says, “made a lot of our later work possible.”

“They live their art authentically,” Nasett says, echoing many other subjects and friends.

But just what does that mean?

 

In 1988, the couple moved to Normal, Ill., to work toward master’s degrees at Illinois State University. While there, they photographed the people of St. Nazianz – a town that formerly served as a Catholic commune – with a pair of used Rolleiflex cameras. And by the mid-’90s, they had caught the eyes of East Coast editors and were taking freelance assignments from The New York Times Magazine. It was on one of these assignments that they met author Michael Perry at a Wisconsin prison for a story he was writing – an experience that became what Perry now considers one of his “top 10 luckiest days.”

“I was dressed in a flannel cap, blue jeans and boots, and I just remember rolling my eyes internally and thinking, ‘This is going to be a long day,’ because these guys looked so precious,” he says of Julie and Johnie’s permanently vintage garb. But as he watched them work with the prisoners, he realized how well they worked together. “They live their art in the way they look, the way they act, the way they take photographs, the equipment – but underlying it all is this Midwestern blue-collar work ethic.” After the day’s work was done, the trio moved to a little bar in Black River Falls to decompress. It was there, Perry says, that they made “a pact” to work with each other whenever they could. “I never dreamed how that little promise would be fulfilled over time,” he says. Julie and Johnie ended up shooting the cover for Perry’s book, Visiting Tom, and included him in some of their projects. They became close with his family.

Perry, half-jokingly, calls himself a hack compared to them, and that he’s “never made bones” about “writing stuff” just to pay the bills. But Julie and Johnie, he says, “make no apologies for being completely artistic.”

Francis Ford, one of Milwaukee’s most prominent photographers, agrees. “They fool around with all these alternative processes, which I never had the patience for,” he says, “but they’re pretty amazing that way.” In 1998, when the couple began to shoot more with a 12-by-20 banquet camera, their frame widened to include more landscape. And in their portraits, they moved in closer to the subject’s face, capturing “their textures and complexities.”

Ford has also been able to turn the cameras around on the couple in his old Third Ward studio. In a 2009 shoot, filmed by Johnie, Ford stands behind an octagon-shaped ring flash wearing dusty jeans and a backwards cap, and snaps away in front of Julie, who’s wearing her signature cat’s-eye frames, and an especially angular bob cut. “I can’t explain how great this is,” he says to her as his camera clicks rhythmically. “I know, I know, I tell everyone that.” Johnie, ever the creator, later added the sound of Ford singing “hap-hap-hap-happy joy,” and then set Ford’s improvised lyrics to his own languid guitar plucking.

In 1989, the couple moved from Illinois to Manitowoc, and set up shop on York Street in a painted beige brick building. It had a gallery space, a studio where they could create their images, and space for them to live. It’s in this gallery, which they called Neo-Post-Now, where they eventually began showing their collection of aluminum Christmas trees, a display that attracted Manitowocians of all stripes and resulted in the 2004 book Season’s Gleamings: The Art of the Aluminum Christmas Tree. The gallery also exhibited the work of other artists like Jimmy von Milwaukee and Sally Kolf, as well as their friend Jim Vogel, whose mixed media pieces with washing machine lint were part of an exhibit of work by young male artists called “The pURGE.” And it was in that studio that they photographed Wisconsinites from all over the state, and processed their images of everything from a Glade-huffing teen to a girl and her cow.

Always working on new projects, the duo debuted an “experimental” documentary film in 2008 that followed four elderly men who had lived on the edge of the mainstream for most of their lives. Late Milwaukee artist and poet Bob Watt was among them, in addition to Barry Lynn, the modern dancer from Ladysmith, Wis., who performed in February to celebrate his 100th birthday. The hourlong black and white documentary was shot with a “hand-wound Bolex” using 16 mm film and, occasionally, you can hear Julie pose questions to the men. In those questions, not only is her background in journalism apparent, but those little snippets of her deep voice reveal a glimpse of what it’s like to be photographed by J. Shimon and J. Lindemann.

 

In 2010, Julie and Johnie exhibited their “Real Photo Postcard Survey,” a collection of portraits taken in their Manitowoc studio since 2008. Like many of their projects, the photos in the exhibit weren’t created in a linear way and were worked on over time. Eventually, they put out a call to people who wanted commissioned portraits. For a fee, participants would have their photo taken in the studio, then Julie and Johnie would mail them 100 postcards and two palladium prints bearing the subject’s likeness. The couple had become fascinated with the way a postcard travels through the U.S. Postal Service, especially the number of mechanical processes each postcard endured during its voyage through the USPS, and wanted the mailing process to be a part of the portrait-making experience. Having become interested in their work in the early aughts, MOWA’s Reid and his then-girlfriend made the trek to the Manitowoc studio to have their photograph taken. They came dressed in their finery – he in a dark suit and shiny shoes, she in a dark, A-line dress. They did so as a nod to the formality of portraits in the early days of photography; a time when, Reid explains, a portrait was a luxury many couldn’t afford.

So Johnie and Julie took their photo, Reid remembers, with Reid sitting and his girlfriend standing to make up for their one-foot height difference. Reid remembers his foot being awkwardly turned in the photo, because while Johnie tinkered with their 1950s 5-by-7 Deardorff camera, Julie noticed that Reid’s foot was out of focus when he held it naturally. It’s the details like this, Reid says, that make the duo’s photographic capabilities so astounding. Their historic knowledge of photography is expansive, and even more so when compounded by their knowledge of the early photographic processes that created daguerreotypes, cyanotypes, tintypes and the myriad cameras they work with. From bi-post studio cameras to Rolleiflexes, Julie estimates they’ve worked with every film-format camera available.

Excited by the idea of walking to their classes in the winter, in 2011, the couple moved to Appleton to be nearer to Lawrence University. That same year, Julie began to feel flashes of exhaustion and random needling pain. She remembers feeling a bout of this come on and having to lie down in their garden on their farm, the sun shining on her as she lay on the ground. With the cruelest of timing, she was eventually diagnosed with metastatic cancer in October 2012, shortly before their project “Decay Utopia Decay” opened at Brehmer’s Portrait Society Gallery. The show of self-portraits and installations had been in the works since 1996 and explored their “decaying, aging existence” and their life in rural Wisconsin.

The diagnosis, however, didn’t stop them from working. On the contrary, the couple continued their work using antiquarian methods, and they also started creating works about the disease’s repercussions. While Johnie had painted and exhibited his paintings since the ’80s, he began his “blotchy blobs” watercolor paintings using found postcards, which the couple had long collected from around the state, as backdrops. Often painting while he sat in a hospital waiting room, the blobs are occasionally circular-ish, flesh- or blood-colored, and sometimes feature scraggly strokes of hair. Sometimes the blobs even resemble cells. The captions on the paintings reflect Johnie’s dry humor and the blobs usually upset – in sometimes cheeky ways – the serenity in the original postcards.

“An alien flesh ship checking out Wisconsin,” reads one caption, with a sort of sombrero-shaped, hairy blob landing over what looks like a forest, while the state’s seal hangs in the sky. “Radiant-meat-spiral motif” reads another, as a blob spiral floats in front of a ’50s-era street corner. Other postcards depict Julie, clad only in her glasses and occasionally wielding a cane, tackling daily life: Julie lying on a bed “re-watching every episode of Twin Peaks;” Julie “checkin [sic] out the Edgewater where she cleaned rooms 35 yrs. ago;” or lying in a doctor’s office, reading something on her iPhone, “waiting for Dr. G to come around.”

While Johnie paints, Julie has embraced imaging technology made many decades after their antique cameras – her iPhone. Often confined to their home in between appointments with the doctor, she points and taps at her surroundings. The resulting photos were exhibited in January 2014, at Brehmer’s gallery in a collection called “The Life As a Shut-In.” These days, Julie continues to take the photos, sometimes with Johnie’s help, and post them to their Instagram account. On it appears shots of flowers sent by friends, waiting-room paraphernalia, a doorway in the sunlight with shadowed spots cast by the trees. One image, taken in a waiting room, features Coping with Cancer magazine with a beaming Betsey Johnson, the girly-punk fashion designer, on the cover.

On a chilly day in October 2013, Julie, Johnie and their friend Jeri Olm assembled together in Green Bay with the stylists of Olm’s salon, named Yikes! They were there to take some images with Olm’s pastel pink Cadillac to be used in the salon’s ads. Julie and Johnie had taken other ad shots for Olm, all with a little bite. One featured a picture of a pregnant bride accompanied by the question “need a hairdo in a hurry?” Another featured a doctor, nurse and an unlucky patient who was diagnosed with “mulletitis.” The ads, Olm declares, have been “super effective” for growing her business. But on this day, Olm’s Cadillac was the perfect accessory for the Rosie-the-Riveter dressed stylists who were hoping to convey that they were the perfect mechanics in case you need a “beauty tune-up.”

The sun kept slipping in and out of clouds that day, leaving only a few precious minutes to get the shot in natural light. But some of her stylists, Olm says, couldn’t get their outfits together, further delaying the shoot.

“I wanted to kill all the stylists, and Julie is in so much pain,” Olm remembers thinking. “It’s freezing-ass cold out, and all these girls shouldn’t have a care in the world. It made me think, ‘How dare you?’”

Despite the delays, Julie and Johnie got the shots they needed. And one of the resulting photos, the portrait of Olm perched on the car and the very image that was lying on Johnie and Julie’s dining room table on that snowy January day, was clearly worth the delays. It is one of dozens that will be featured in their April retrospective at the Museum of Wisconsin Art.
Now helping them narrow down their archive of thousands of images to roughly 150, MOWA’s Reid says the couple has “a very clear sense” of what their work is about,” which has helped in organizing their massive body of work into one exhibit. That doesn’t mean it’s been an easy task for the couple. Revisiting their archive, which will be donated posthumously to Lawrence, has awoken in them feelings of nostalgia and an even more pressing desire to live in the moment.

“We knew this was something we would need to think about after seeing the fates of some of our artist friends’ work, but not this soon,” Julie says of their archive. Yet the experience has also reminded them of their original intentions.

“We can more clearly see our delusions, illusions and visions of a world we and the people we photographed all wanted to inhabit,” Julie says. And that world was often “at odds with mainstream American culture and hype.”

In the book produced for their 2008 exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum, the couple writes about their influences, including Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, who lived as a self-taught artist in Milwaukee and created pin-up-like portraits of his wife and psychedelic paintings. Through their portraits, both Von Bruenchenhein and Alfred Stieglitz (one of the most influential modern photographers) were able to capture an “inner life” in a photograph’s subject. Stieglitz, they wrote, called it “an experience of spirit” – identifying what is arguably the essence of portrait photography. It’s a need to make sense of larger ideas, a person’s identity, that person’s place in time, much of the unseen – all through a stationary image.

They closed the book by writing that this is the “ultimate accomplishment of the photographic portrait, as it projects materialized past selves into new futures.” In other words, the moment captured in a portrait can be a projection of the self at the time of the portrait, while simultaneously revealing aspects beyond the subject’s control. We do not look at a photo of ourselves taken years earlier and think what we thought at the time it was a taken. Yet when the subject – that modern dancer, that punk kid huffing aerosol or that gorgeous drag queen – looks back on the image, a new reality is perceived, one that hinges on imperfect memories, and one that reveals new information with time. In that frozen rendering, new truths can be found. “We worked based on intuition and passion,” Julie says in an email. “There was a rational side to our projects, but we were propelled by an unstoppable curiosity and love of Wisconsin, of people we were meeting, and of the complexities of the life we found around us.

“We wanted to hold on to it by freezing it with a photograph.” In this way, photography is the magical, transportive vehicle on which Julie and Johnie have hitched a ride inseparably since the 1980s. Because of their lives as artists and photographers, Julie says, she’s been able to experience the stories of thousands through the images they create. And it has allowed them to live “this incredibly rich life.”

An update: Julie Lindemann died on the morning of August 25, 2015. In an email, Johnie announced her death to friends, family and acquaintances, and thanked them for an outpouring of support they both received during her three years fighting metastatic cancer. In his message, Johnie also linked to these portraits of Julie – portraits that are striking, tender and even playful – that the couple created over the 30-some years they were together.

Claire Hanan is an associate editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Write to her at letters@milwaukeemag.com.

Hear more about the duo on WUWM’s “Lake Effect” April 22 at 10 a.m.


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