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  • January 28, 2014

Visual Poetry: Erika Larsen Explores the World of Garrison Keillor

Erika Larsen photographed Garrison Keillor’s hometown for There’s No Place Like Home,” a personal narrative written by Keillor for the February issue of National Geographic magazine.

Included below are excerpts from emails sent from Keillor to Larsen, along with passages from Keillor’s essay for National Geographic. This is Larsen’s second assignment for the magazine. Her photographs of Scandinavia’s Sami Reindeer Herders were published in the November 2011 issue.

Picture of Garrison Keillor on prairie
Garrison Keillor stands by his car on prairie land just west of Minneapolis.

September 13, 2012

Dear Erika,

Glad to hear you’ll be shooting the “Personal Geography” story for National Geographic. . . . My wife Jenny and I would be happy to put you up in our large, suddenly empty (with our daughter off to boarding school) house in St. Paul. Queen bed, quiet, your own bath en suite, sunny terrace, free access to kitchen and grand piano, wi-fi, etc etc. Ten minutes from airport. Cat on the premises.

Talk to you soon.

Garrison Keillor

 

It was my first contact with Garrison and the start of my journey into his life. It would begin in October before the days got short and cold in the Twin Cities. I wanted to explore his memories, his past, to search for his ghosts, familiar and distant. I would use his words as a map. To try and understand Garrison I had to start from the beginning. Discover his childhood, his family, and his first dwellings.

Picture of kitchen sink
The kitchen sink at Garrison’s childhood home in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. Both of Garrison’s parents have passed away but his sister Linda still maintains the home.

I would visit his hometown, his family cemetery and relatives. I would attend several “meetings”—what church services are called in the Brethren community. I would attend Sunday school classes—the same classes that, to Garrison, made a boy “ever aware of worldly temptation.” I would read verses from the Bible in his mother’s home, the same book from which Garrison had to memorize a verse every Sunday.

Picture of old bible
This bible belonged to Garrison’s mother. It sits in his childhood home in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.

I would drive down that long country road out west, leaving the Twin Cities, listening to his voice through the radio.

He called this piece “a memoiristic essay on life in a contained space.” I would try to find a way to penetrate that space and render it on film. I carried a few questions with me. Would the children of today echo the past? Had the landscapes bronzed his footsteps? Would the voices from beyond still have a form?

Picture of family portrait and bible on shelf
A shelf in cousin Bruce Bacon’s house, with an old photo of four generations (clockwise): the boy, Bruce; his mother, Dorothy; her mother, Lois; and her mother, Libby Crandall, Garrison’s great aunt.

September 17, 2012

(Don’t you imagine you could do all the images in three days? You really need to return later? Well, you know what you want, I’m sure.) . . .  It’s an odd piece to illustrate, for sure, since it’s nostalgic and personal, but the pictures needn’t be either. The challenge, as I see it, is to take a fairly ordinary midwestern city and to see it grandly and elegantly, and the legends (or captions) will try to populate the pictures with some chunks of narrative.

If I’m busy on the 10th, I may have my sister drive you around. She knows even more than I do.

Garrison

Picture of family members at wedding
Keillor family members attend the weekend wedding celebrations of Amanda Keillor, Garrison’s niece.

And he was right. It would be an odd piece to illustrate. I began in my home by reading excerpts from his books, watching a documentary of his life and of course listening to A Prairie Home Companion. Most importantly, I would read and reread his story. My editor and I highlighted all the parts that had potential to be visually represented and I used this as a map. A map of not only geography, but of time.

Picture of ice rink
Homemade broomball and ice rink in Anoka, Minnesota.

I decided to divide the weeks I had available to shoot amongst the seasons. The seasons would become the backdrops for the scenes from his life that I would use to paraphrase seventy years into twelve pictures. January was the time to experience the Minnesota cold. How could I understand that “love blooms when it is coldest,” without standing in blustering wind on frozen lakes in -30 degrees? I would be entranced by the light the full moon cast on “the brave little skyscraper” of his childhood—The Foshay Tower—that was at one time the tallest building in the Twin Cities. I would find myself timing my long exposure images of the “Great River” by saying One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, Three Mississippi. I would eat at the White Castle after a long night out with the creative writing students from the university. The same university where, as a young man, he wrote “dense jagged unreadable poems” and discovered “girls with jiggly breasts under their aboriginal blouses, everyone skinny as snakes.”

Picture of red headed woman sitting in old chevy pickup
The owners of classic cars and trucks park them on the main drag in Hastings, Minnesota, on Saturday nights.

September 17, 2012

Ten weeks!!!!!! TEN WEEKS????

I think you should make all the images you can in October, dear, because winter can be so unpredictable —- snow or not so much snow —- and spring is a complete mystery, sometimes there is one and other times not, and so you may not get decent shots until May. A long time.

. . .

See you soon, and let me know when your plane is coming in so we can fetch you at the airport.

Garrison

Picture of woman in blouse wearing rhubarb pin
Beth Hennessy wears a rhubarb pin at the annual Rhubarb Festival in Lanesboro. Hennesy is a member of “The Rhubarb Sisters,” a singing act that performed on A Prairie Home Companion.

But I needed those weeks to have any chance of understanding spring’s mystery. I wanted to find the families gathering at Lake Calhoun, and scour the surrounding suburbs searching for the first rhubarb pie of the season. I would walk the streets at the old time car show in Hastings searching for his first love, “Her at the wheel, the summer wind in my face, the lights of Minneapolis passing, sweet love in the air. I would give the world to go back to that night and hold her in my arms.” And I would need that time to attend his niece’s wedding. A stunning woman echoing the past yet fully ripe with the future. A lot of his family was in attendance. On my final flight from the Twin Cities back east I reread his essay for the final time, still wondering if I have any better understanding of his final words than I had a year ago.

“I was not a good person.

I have yelled at my children.

I neglected my parents and was disloyal to loved ones.

I have offended righteous people.

People around here know all this about me, and yet they

still smile and say hello, and so every day I feel forgiven.”

Picture of Mississippi river at night
A view of the Mississippi near Main street along with the dam and the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Garrison Keillor is an author, radio personality, and storyteller best known for his work on A Prairie Home Companion, a live radio variety show. The Keillor Reader, a collection of stories and essays will be published by Viking in May.

Erika Larsen studies cultures with strong ties to nature. Her 2009 magazine assignment on the Sami reindeer herders of Scandinavia grew out of her own documentary work, for which she lived and worked within the culture for over four years. View more of Erika Larsen’s work on her website.

There are 37 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Judy Salsich
    March 1, 2014

    This was beautiful. Thank you.

  2. Felicia
    March 1, 2014

    These pictures of your personal life gives me a feeling of comfort. Pictures tells stories and I love to interpret the story…Great pictures..

  3. V Pierce
    February 15, 2014

    Thanks for the wonderful photos and narrative from Garrison Keillor. I started listening to Prairie Home in Virginia many years ago before I moved to Minneapolis.

  4. Gerald Mooers
    February 13, 2014

    That was a beautiful picture story of his life. I grew up with poor parents.(Dad was a milkman and Mom stayed home. I have a older brother and sister and a younger sister. we are a very close family, the memories are very vivid in my mind. Thanks again!

  5. Emily Moe
    February 10, 2014

    Gary’s Minnesota is xenophobic, ignoring the parts of Minnesota that aren’t Scandinavian. Even his small town upbringing is a lie. Brooklyn Park is a generic suburb without any distinction of personality at all. It is a town that has been spending generations going to the mall. While I have no problem with the nostalgia that requires rose colored glasses, I do have a problem with making Minnesota into something it isn’t.

  6. Carl Perkins
    February 10, 2014

    What a fitting photo essay of Garrison Keillor. As a youth in St Paul I went fishing with my dad at Lake Vadnais, rode my bike with friends to Harriet Island, played softball in front of our home on Hague Avenue, and walked through snow drifts and cold to deliver the Pioneer Press to my customers before going off to school (only a toboggan accident one night at Como Park kept me from my rounds as a paper boy). So this article rings a bell for me . . . I am much touched by it . . . and, thank you so much for reminding me of my past as a Minnesota boy and the good life that it was. And, most significantly, with the many dark moments that have occurred since that childhood this article has brought me to realize yet once again that “People around here know all this about me, and yet they still smile and say hello, and so every day I feel forgiven.” For me, it couldn’t have been said better.

  7. Susan Grelling
    February 9, 2014

    Garrison’s picture in the print version shows him standing on the prairie next to a lone tree near Buffalo Lake, MN. I grew up in Buffalo Lake; went to and graduated from its only school, ate my fill at the volunteer firefighters’ smelt fries, and strung streamers and balloons in the Lutheran church basement for friends’ bridal showers. When I was younger, I didn’t understand Prairie Home Companion. Garrison talked about our daily life of green bean hotdish, mosquitos, ice fishing and neighborly gossip. Only now do I understand how lucky I was to have grown up in “Americana”. Thanks for the memories!!

  8. Ginette Denommée/John Semeniuk
    February 3, 2014

    Very peaceful and soothing a life we remember in all its beauty

  9. Charley Underdahl
    February 3, 2014

    Thankyou so much for your article and pictures. It is wonderful to relive my Minnesota since I don’t get to visit much. However, a Minnesota winter is bearable if not loved since I spent nearly thirty years sliding through the snow.

  10. Tom Wendt
    February 3, 2014

    I’m gett’n pretty close to eighty and the one thing I really hope to do is to see Garrison Keillor in the flesh. I’ve been enjoying his voice for over forty years and I surely want to know if that marvelous voice is really his, or made up for the humorous character he portrays on his radio show. Then I would summon up enough nerve to shake his hand and thank him for all of the entertaining, informative hours. Maybe I better thank him now, before….

  11. David Conolly
    February 2, 2014

    It was way back in the 70s when Tom, a young Minnesotan, came to us in Melbourne, Australia, with his open heart and winning ways. He brought Garrison into our lives and with him the deep beauty of lives lived simply and well through joy and pain. Your magical photos enrich the story which I’ve carried in my heart all these years. Thank you so much.

  12. Charlie sullivan
    February 2, 2014

    At 67 I now spend a great deal of time attempting to uncover the past. My past, my parents their parents etc. it is difficult for they are all gone, but very enjoyable getting to know them through this journey. Strange it would have been so much easier when I was young, all i would of needed was to simply ask and listen. It seems youth is focused on the future but as our futures get shorter we focus on the past.

  13. Ian Kirkegaard
    February 2, 2014

    I was born into a small district of Danish farmers in southern Queensland, Australia. It does not get nearly as cold as Minnesota, but cold enough. You will also travel a long way before you see a lake. My family were Lutherans, until the pastor from another district stopped visiting, when we became Methodists. I recognise so much of what Keillor writes and talks about – a better side of humanity. Having roamed about, doing interesting things in other interesting places, and passed my three-score and ten, we have returned to this area, where my wife can enter the baking competition at the local agricultural show (I think you would call it a ‘fair’) – and receive a prize for her cupcakes. There are several choirs to sing in, other musical groups, friendly greetings when we go into ‘town’, and not quite enough hours in a week.

  14. Paul Jordan
    February 2, 2014

    At 78 I enjoy organizing and sometimes displaying family pictures from my youth and teen years in Santa Monica, CA. I think most of us can see a little of Lake Wobegon in our lives–thanks to Garrison and Erika.

  15. Barri Murphy
    February 2, 2014

    These photos are a peek through the peephole into the home and heart of the Mark Twain of our time. I live in Dallas, Texas, where I was born and raised, but have become an adopted Minnesotan through osmosis, thanks to 26 years (1/2 my life) of exposure to Garrison Keillor. I love it and wouldn’t have it any other way. I can’t imagine life without him! Thank you for sharing!

  16. Marie Henley
    February 2, 2014

    I grew up in Chicago and in many was it was similar to Mr Keillor’s stories. ..sittig on the porch talking to the folks who walk by,,,the kids on their bikes…the snowball fights..
    Now, living in Calif,, I rarely miss a Sunday broadcast. Thanks Mr Keillor!!!

  17. David R. Armbrust
    February 2, 2014

    I appreciate your words and photos about Garrison Keillor. I grew up and still reside in the town of Lincoln, Illinois. The only town in the USA named for Abraham Lincoln before he became famous. The words of Garrison bring back memories of Saturday evenings in the late 40’s. The town square was alive with farm families that came to town to shop and socialize and perhaps allow the kids to catch a movie. The men would gather along the street, perhaps sitting on the tailgate of the pickup or lean on the fenders of the family car and visit while Mom did the weekly shopping. When I read Garrison’s words I think of how far we have come and perhaps how much we have lost.

  18. E C Hiatt
    February 2, 2014

    Pictorial proof that life passes much too quickly

  19. Roy F. Wilson
    February 2, 2014

    I grew up in the twin Cities, though earlier than Garrison. We lived in Edina, a suburb in the corner Keillor labels, “wealth & privilege,” but that wasn’t us; we had a one-horse farm. When Keillor’s father built their little house in 1947, that farm was contoured by earth movers to accommodate up-scale houses, & I was a soldier in Japan.
    The Foshay tower, the Washburn Tower, the gas works, & the Calhoun Beach Club loomed above the trees on my childhood horizon, symbolizing a world of mystery I couldn’t experience.
    I never returned except to visit, but Keillor’s poetic reminiscence brought tears to my eyes. I’ve been there, done that, in many of the same places, but with different people in a different time.

  20. Frank Vincenzi
    February 2, 2014

    Well, it may be about the midwest, but it’s more about reflecting on one’s life – the instantaneous flashing from youth to childhood to senior citizenship all in one thought. Mr. Keillor puts those thoughts into words, even in a single sentence. I had tears streaming down my cheeks reflection on his 70+ years and my own. Thank you very much.

  21. Karen Sutter
    February 2, 2014

    Garrison and the mythical Lake Wobegon have been my favorite radio companions ever since I found it on my public radio station back in the early 80s. I enjoyed seeing him back to back at Wolftrap and then again close up and personal at The Birchmere.

  22. Mark Hilliard
    February 2, 2014

    Delightful story in National Geographic! Way out of the usual type of story with GK’s personal narrative which is as far as I know (from reading many 100’s of NG editions over decades) unique. Kudo’s to risk taking editors for this! Loved the story, sad though to see evocative images above cut out. One’s selected do some justice to written narrative, but the community landscape get’s shorted. Thankfully some of the most beautiful and poignant are here. You don’t get Keillor “right” until you illustrate his quirky, humorous, conflicted – but utterly deep – love of family, community and place bound in single image, you need the visual equivalent of his “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone..” monologues…that’s really hard…thanks for including the editors cuts…

  23. Michael Morrow
    February 2, 2014

    I spent half my almost 70 years in Southern California, and I’m sure if we’d had Prairie Home back then I’d have headed for Oregon much sooner. Thank you for the wonderful visuals to add to three decades of Keillor’s true American voice. He’s an icon, and like Red Barber and Dan Schorr, I’ll miss him terribly.

  24. albert yount
    February 2, 2014

    My pleasure was personally meeting Garrison after a one man performance at Appalachian State Univ. in Boone, NC. I told him he was what a good friend of mine in my small NC hometown said of people like him. “He is top timber”. And he is…

  25. Tom Heil
    February 2, 2014

    This story grabbed my heart and made feel close to the good old days on the farm (grandparents, not me). Thanks for the great story.

  26. Ayanna Bennett
    February 2, 2014

    I’ve been reading and watching and listening to Garrison Keillor I was a little girl growing up in California with no real conception of what a small town was. Hearing about that life was in someways as much a foray into the foreign as National Geographic. And yet Garrison always made it feel like stories about my home. It’s nice to see his world so lovingly shared. It closes the circle somehow.

  27. Maggie Millus
    February 2, 2014

    This story touched my heart. It reminds me of the feelings that we southerners have for home.

  28. Bobbi Rongstad
    February 2, 2014

    This is a lovely snapshot of midwestern life. I notice that you study cultures with strong ties to nature. Please come to Northern WI where our rural way of life is threatened by an open pit iron mine in the headwaters of our watershed flowing to Lake Superior.

  29. Ed Conly – Mt. Airy, MD
    January 30, 2014

    This was an absolutely beautiful little story that displays both National Geographic and Garrison Keillor as national treasures. Mt. Airy is not Lake Wobegon, but we’re simple country folk too.

  30. Jim Richardson
    January 30, 2014

    What a heartfelt, plain-spoken tribute to life lived well. Thanks for the insights, and that comes from someone who has spent a bit of time looking at everyday life in out-of-the-way places.

  31. Ron Lansverk
    January 30, 2014

    I believe you captured us mid-westerner’s accurately and with a sense of sensibility Garrison could appreciate. Well done.

  32. JoEllen VanderWaal
    January 29, 2014

    I grew up in a very small town in Iowa and have had the pleasure of seeing Garrison in person on his radio show. No one is funnier about life in a little town! My sisters and I still remember his comment about cougars.’you know that cougars are more scared of you than you are of them, but…how could they be?? We’ve enjoyed you much, Mr Keillor!

  33. Caroline from Anoka, MN
    January 29, 2014

    I read National Geographic to discover new things and experience exotic places; it was fun to read about my own ordinary hometown, landmarks, and neighborhoods and imagine that it might seem “exotic” to someone else’s eyes!

  34. Rick Musser
    January 29, 2014

    I have listened to his voice for so many years that it was easy to hear Keillor himself speaking this magazine reverie on the Twin Cities. I did wonder, however, how much of this emotional geography was the real Garrison in Minneapolis and St. Paul and how much might simply be more Minnesota fiction. The photographer’s narrative gives me more confidence that the person in the essay was as real as the places. Confidence; yet not quite certainty.

  35. Coburn Dukehart
    January 28, 2014

    Thank you for your comment, the change has been made.

  36. da berg
    January 28, 2014

    One small mistake – there is no ‘Brookdale Park’! It’s confusing – there is Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center – both northern surburbs of Minneapolis and there is ‘Brookdale Center’ – a shoping center located in ‘Brooklyn Center’. Keillors family home is in the surburb of ‘Brooklyn Park’.

  37. Raico Anderson
    January 28, 2014

    I absolutely loved this story about Garrison Keillor. I can relate to most of his stories of Minnesota life because I too am from Minnesota, as well as a Lutheran. This little window into his life has been a joy for me to explore. Thank You

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