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The Old Man and the River

Richard Younker spent nine years photographing a Mississippi River fisherman. His new book is a fitting memorial to a man and a friendship.



Knowing Junnie Putman "brought out a side of me that was walled up my whole life," says Richard Younker. Putman was one of the last commercial fishermen on the upper Mississippi River, and Younker, a photojournalist, visited him 55 times over nine years, photographing him with his fishing gear, listening to his stories, and mingling with his friends and family. Younker would pay room and board to the townspeople of Bellevue, Iowa, who'd put him up for days and weeks at a time in their homes. He came to consider Putman his best friend, and gave the eulogy at his funeral.

"I wasn't a very confident person," says Younker. "All I cared about was my career. But these people were so special and they liked me so much. Maybe it was because I was interested in them. They always asked me, while we were saying good-bye and kicking the cinders under our feet, when I'd be coming back, because they really missed me, and they said they thought about me all the time. Knowing them made me more demonstrative about showing affection to other people."

Younker had worked as a teacher, a public aid caseworker, and a mailman before selling his first photographs in 1974. So maybe it was natural that his main subject matter was people at work. In 1988 he was photographing farm vets and "clam guys" when he came across a reference book at the library on Illinois occupations. It inspired him to visit the Mississippi River fishermen in Bellevue.

His first fisherman contact brushed him off, and he was going to give up and go back to Chicago. But when he went to check out of his motel, the woman at the desk told him he shouldn't leave town before going to see the Putmans.

"She spoke the words that changed my whole life," says Younker.

The Putmans didn't brush him off. Younker turned the material from his visits into photo essays, which were published in the Tribune Sunday magazine, Triquarterly, and Chicago magazine. But when he tried to sell a book of his Putman photographs, with minimal captions as the only text, he was less successful. Publishers told him they wanted a story to go along with the pictures.

So in 1994 Younker started writing one. "I knew then that if I was going to make my mark, it was with this book."

He says there was a method to capturing the details of the life of an upper Mississippi River fisherman. "You can't just sit across the table from someone and say tell me about this and tell me about that," says Younker, "because their mind goes blank." That's why he made such long and frequent trips to Bellevue. "I wanted to listen to Junnie and everyone talking together about their lives, in real situations, at family parties, during regular activities on regular days."

"For the most part in my early years with the Putmans," Younker writes, "I preferred a role as an observer, listening to their words, photographing their actions and expressions. Occasionally, however, I was drawn unwillingly into events."

Like the time one of the clan challenged him to drink three inches of whiskey from a bottle in one gulp. He couldn't. When another fisherman grabbed the bottle and downed it, Putman got pissed off that the whiskey was gone and he threw the empty bottle at the floor, where it shattered. Then he told Younker, "Rich, I want this to go in your book: Rich, I hung my uncle. I hung my own fucking uncle!" Putman went on to tell the story that one evening, after discovering his Uncle George had swindled him out of the profits of a catch, he'd hung him from a lamppost. But the lamppost bent, went Putman's story, and George lived. Younker checked with a criminal defense lawyer before putting that story in the book.

The book, Yankin' and Liftin' Their Whole Lives, also goes into great detail about fishing tools, techniques, and the cultural intricacies of marketing a catch. There was the perennial battle of wills with the game warden, for example, whose job was to impose fines on fishermen who were exceeding their limits. In a chapter entitled "Trotlining," Junnie says, "We had a game warden sent up here some years back. Wes Beecher. Went strictly by the book; wouldn't give nobody any slack. That's why they put a bounty on him. Ooooh yeah. Down south a lot of them game wardens walk into the woods one day, and that's the last they ever see of 'em."

In late 1996, Southern Illinois University Press liked Younker's book enough to give him a contract, though they asked him to keep working on the text. In June 1997, Junnie died of cancer at the age of 70.

"He was a country boy and I hailed from the city," wrote Younker. "I was a college grad while neither Junnie nor his fishing brothers went beyond eighth grade. I enjoy talking about history and poetry while he appreciated discourse on hunting, trapping, fishing, and animal lore. I, though brash of tongue, have talked my way out of many fights while Junnie, at times soft-spoken, hadn't, I was sure, backed off from any."

Yankin' and Liftin' Their Whole Lives was published late last year. Junnie Putman never saw the book, but before he died he knew Younker had made a deal with a publisher.

"I said, 'People are going to remember you for a long time through this book,' and he said, 'What good is it going to do me? I'll be dead,'" says Younker. By then, Putman was riddled with cancer. "I said, 'Junnie, most people live their whole lives to leave a legacy, and you'll have one.' And that seemed to give him consolation and solace."

--Bonnie McGrath

Younker will be signing copies June 1 from 2:30 to 3:45 at the University of Chicago Bookstore, 970 E. 58th St.

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