American states are a weird assembly of riotous traditions, laws, and items. Pumpkin pie is the official state pie in Illinois, Oregon has an official state nut, and New Mexico an official state question. Oklahoma, deep in the Bible Belt and contrarian, insists that watermelon is its state vegetable. In Missouri, the official state dessert was ice cream cone, in Nebraska, Kool-Aid is the official soft drink. Vermont declared maple as its official flavor.
By these standards, Minnesota declaring the photo above the official state photograph didn’t seem that unusual. More unusual was the photo’s journey — from being poorly received at the Minnesota Photographer’s Association in 1918 to being printed millions of copies and sold across the country, a photographic equivalent of Whistler’s Mother. On Amazon, you can buy 22 different versions of the colorized version of photo (by the photographer’s daughter).
The original was taken by Eric Enstorm in Bovey, Minnesota. The man featured was a local peddler named Charles Wilden, who lived in a sod house and disappeared into obscurity immediately after the photo was taken. While the photograph would later come to symbolize penitence, piety, and the ministry of ‘Our Daily Bread’, Enstorm’s intentions were less clear. While he had Wilden clasp his hands and bow his head and arranged household objects around him (he also scratched the glass negative so that the picture frame on the left appeared as an open window through which divine light shone), the book on the table was not a Bible but a dictionary. Wilden himself was a town drunk, and Enstrom later reflected that his thoughts were about the First World War, rationing, and privations faced by his fellow Minnesotans on the home front.
In a 1961 interview, Enstrom recalled that he wanted an image that would inspire thankfulness. He noted, “I saw that he had a kind face… there weren’t any harsh lines in it … this man doesn’t have much of earthly goods, but he has more than most people because he has a thankful heart.”
This thankfulness was again in short supply during the Great Depression of the late 1920s, and local churches began using the photo. Enstorm and his daughter would obsessively paint over the original prints (and even producing a matching image with an elderly lady) to give it the appearance of oil paintings. Eventually, when demand outstripped their ability to produce handpainted prints, the Enstorms sold the photo rights to a Minneapolis publishing house affiliated with the American Lutheran Church. After this, the photo found its way to churches, restaurants, homes, and boats around the United States.
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