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Tom Barrett: A photographic retrospective of his time as Milwaukee’s Mayor

The U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed the nomination of Mayor Tom Barrett to become ambassador to Luxembourg on December 16. Milwaukee Common Council President Cavalier Johnson will serve as Milwaukee’s Mayor until an election is held. Barrett plans to meet with Johnson on December 17 to begin the transfer of power. After 18 years, Barrett was one of the country’s longest-serving big city mayors.

“Tom Barrett has been the single individual I have photographed most over my years as a photojournalist in Milwaukee.”

When Tom Barrett became Mayor of Milwaukee I was still living overseas. I would take my first picture of him, while on assignment for the Milwaukee Business Journal, at the Lebowski Fest in August 2013. I photographed him on occasion over the following years, but it did not become a regular occurrence until after 2015 when I started work for the Milwaukee Independent. By 2016, it would be fair to say that I saw the Mayor at an event at least a twice a week.

There were times when I covered so many events in one day that he attended, we could have car pooled. But I always tried to keep my professional distance. Much of that was out of respect for him and the office. But also, everywhere he went someone was trying to take selfies with him or bend his ear on an issue. I saw him all the time and felt little need for chitchat. Besides, it was socially awkward for me, which is why I am behind the camera and not in front of it.

Mayor Barrett was central to Milwaukee, so reporting on the city usually always came with his involvement. He was only a part of the coverage I produced about Milwaukee, but his inclusion in a subject always gave it more attention. He already had a long political history well before I arrived on the local scene. But like with most things, I could only observe what I saw in front of me in realtime.

And, as a photojournalist, I have found that the less I say the closer I can physically be to people. I was always able to stand next to former Governor Scott Walker to take pictures because I kept my mouth closed and gave him no reason to be irritated at me. In return, I got very intimate and immersive images.

That kind of detachment allows me to really watch people, because I am not thinking about how to engage with them. It also removes the pressure of making sure I avoided putting my foot in my mouth.

At events with the Mayor, during quiet moments he always acknowledged me, saying hello and asking how I was. It was a gentle kindness that is so much a part of who he is. He offered that same generosity to everyone, regardless of their position.

Over the course of my career I have photographed a range of people. Many are hard to get a good picture of. When I see a news image of people with their mouth open, or an exaggeratedly odd expression, I think it makes the individual look bad. To me, it is like an attack against them. I blame the photographer and the photo editor. My philosophical view is that photos should always show people at their best, and any axes to grind can be done in the written editorial.

However, there are some exceptions I that have personally discovered. Some politicians, past and present, are nearly impossible to photograph and get a respectable image. Often it is just their facial mannerisms, like ticks, or never pausing while speaking so I can get a shot with their face relaxed. And some people have what I call “photo radar.” I do not believe it is intentional, but just as I align a magical shot of them – they turn away. It feels like trying to snap a photo of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.

For those individuals, I try even harder to get a good photo but at times still come up short. If they look odd, I have had to accept that it is because that is how they look. Not because I waited for a gotcha moment when they were not at their best. I will take hundreds of images in the hope that the mathematical odds will deliver me at least one usable image I can be proud of. I have taken a thousand photos just to get one I could live with.

For Tom Barrett, I never had any problems. He was the most photogenic person I ever experienced. He always knew where the cameras were. While talking, he would look around the room and then look directly at my lens. He always seemed to understand how good photos were composed. It made my job easier, but also rewarded me with many stunning images over the years.

Being so tall did prove challenging at times during casual moments, when shorter people would engage with the Mayor. I would adjust my camera angle to bring that distance closer together and be less noticeable. Otherwise, having him at any event was comforting.

With Tom Barrett’s appointment as the next U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, it means he will be leaving Milwaukee. So it is not like a situation with others who change jobs and still show up around town. He will be gone for a while, and it is unlikely I will get any assignments to Luxembourg. We were not close, but he was a familiar figurehead that has been the backbone of my photojournalism in Milwaukee. So I will miss him.

I also never interviewed Tom Barrett. He always seemed to know what to say before questions were asked. So mostly I never felt the need ask anything. And there were always reporters around to ask questions. Often I would hear other reporters ask questions and think, were they not listening or do they just want to hear themselves talk? I would have enjoyed doing an interview with him, and always had access, but I never found anything special that was different enough than the interviews he did all the time. So I directed my energy into interviewing others who got less media attention.

As Milwaukee transitions to a new Mayor for the first time since I came back to my hometown, there are certainly a lot of unknowns in the future. People often complain that they want change, but forget how unpredictable and unexpected change can be. Having lived in so many countries around the world, I was trained to be adaptable to survive and thrive. But as time has passed, it becomes natural to feel nostalgic for the things that are gone.

I do not know how I will feel when Tom Barrett is no longer Mayor of Milwaukee. The pandemic lockdown drastically reduced how much I personally saw him this last year, so I already have a trial run at what that absence is like.

I assembled this representational collection of 278 images over the past 6 years as a tribute Tom. They are mostly taken from the key images used for published news article and photo essays. I have seen him at events that cover the emotional spectrum – from the tragedy of mass shootings to joy of sports victories.

I know that as a politician he has his critics, even among his supporters. My detachment helped me just see the man who tried to make Milwaukee – a place he loved – be a home where everyone who lived here could prosper and be happy. That is a lofty goal that may always be unachievable, but still requires someone to reach for it.

This photo collections shows how I saw Tom Barrett do his best to make that dream a reality for Milwaukee.

© Photo

Lee Matz

About The Author

Lee Matz

Former Creative Director and Photojournalist for the Milwaukee Business Journal, Lee brings his years of international experience as an award-winning foreign correspondent in Asia and Europe. Lee proudly uses MCTS as the exclusive mode of transportation for covering all his news reports.