A CELEBRATION OF BLUE COLLAR ENTREPRENEURS
I began photographing “Joe’s” businesses over two decades ago while traveling around the United States. At first I was simply captivated by the old-style typography used for commercial signage in small town America, and finding examples in my own name made it a fun photographic study. But after a while I came to realize I was actually documenting “blue-collar entrepreneurship” and by using Joe as the qualifier I was amassing a unique portfolio of the average man chasing the American Dream.
Joe is the seventh most common name in America. Nearly four million men, or approximately three-percent of American males are named Joe. That a man’s given name is Joe has mostly to do with his parents, his lineage, or perhaps even his socio-economic background. That he chooses to name his vocation after himself speaks volumes to the extraordinary spirit and confidence of this most common of men. Joe's businesses are a ubiquitous eponymy on the streets of America.
The term “American Dream” was coined by writer James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book The Epic of America. His American Dream was that “of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” This idea that hard work and ingenuity could lead to success and happiness was the driving force behind America’s incredible entrepreneurial spirit of the 20th century. That the common man, the “average Joe” if you will, had an equal opportunity to create a better life is a concept deeply rooted in the Declaration of Independence, and is the very ethos of America.
Today, there is genuine need to reconnect with that guarantee. Loss of confidence in government and big business, and concern that the world is dangerously out of kilter, is resetting society to a simpler time. Self-reliance in the new mantra, and pulling oneself up with one’s bootstraps the new corporate ladder. Perhaps more elusive than in our father’s day, the American Dream is still very much alive. To find inspiration in this most fundamental and precious tenet one has only to look at“Joe” in order to see the promise fulfilled.
Twenty years of documenting Joe's establishments provides a fascinating view of real America. It is that very commonness of Joe, the realization that without a doubt somewhere else in the country there is another Joe’s Bar – maybe a hundred other Joe’s Bars – which makes these tiny companies such a valid sampling of small business across the nation. Naming a enterprise “Joe’s” is so generic there has never been one successfully trademarked. There are literally thousands of such establishments across America, representing hundreds of kinds of ventures - many quite ordinary like Joe’s Diner, some less so like Joe’s Bail Bonds or Joe's Funeral Parlor. Yet almost to a tee the Joes I met were honest, humble people who knew the value of a dollar and the importance of hard work. And they were hardly shy when it came to sharing their opinions on where America was great and where it had failed them. It's easy to imagine that these intrepid blue-collar capitalists could shed some light on what is needed to make our country great again.
Joe's American Dream is being produced as both a one-hour documentary film and a large-format photography book. Click the gallery link below to meet some of the Joe's I'll be including.