Just in time for Independence Day, Chicago photographer Mariah Karson’s new book “American Legion” is a revealing look at legion outposts and the vets who are members.
Make It Better: What sparked your interest in American Legions and Legionaries?
Mariah Karson: The project started in 2013 when Stan Klein, the director of Firecat Projects (Chicago), invited me to have an exhibition. The gallery operates on a nonprofit model and allows artists the opportunity to have complete creative control. I set out on a road trip, thinking it would help me decide what I wanted to explore. While I was driving through Nebraska, I noticed that every small town had a Masonic lodge, Elks lodge, VFW, or American Legion post. I became curious about what the population was like and how they could sustain a physical structure in a remote town of 150 people: How could they possibly have enough wartime veterans, and what purpose did the post, often one of the few nonresidential buildings in the town, serve in the community as a whole?
How did you narrow your focus?
I took exterior photos of several different American Legion posts on the trip, but there was one in particular — in Cody, Nebraska — that I was especially fascinated by. When I returned to Chicago, I printed, framed, and hung the image in my office and looked at it daily while sitting at my computer. I grew increasingly curious about what was inside this building, and started researching the American Legion.
What was the most surprising thing you learned?
I read that 640 World War II vets died every day in 2013, but today less than 1 percent of the U.S. population serves in the military. So those statistics, combined with the decreasing popularity of small towns or of joining fraternal organizations, necessitated an urgency to explore what was inside the Legion posts and what the communities in these small towns were like.
The Austin–Irving Branch of the Chicago Public Library will have Karson’s photographs on display from July 1 to Sept. 30. The library will host a public reception and discussion panel with the author and local legionnaries on July 23 from 6-7:45 p.m.
Copies of “American Legion” can be purchased at mariahkarson.com/americanlegion
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Danielle McLimore is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has worked in book publishing since 2009. She lives with her husband, two sons, and a very misbehaved dog. She proudly supports the Center for Reproductive Rights.