The year was 1954, and the air was cold enough to make your face hurt. Archie Lieberman had driven out to Jo Daviess County from Evanston, Ill. He met young Bill Hammer at the corner of Stagecoach Trail and Hammer Road. From there, the 12-year-old directed Archie to his parents' farm, where Archie would photograph Bill's older sister, Janet.
Archie remembers his first encounter with the boy as though it took place yesterday. "Billy Hammer said to me, 'Do you like to work?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Good, because that's all we do around here,'" he says with a chuckle.
Archie, who freelanced for such magazines as "Life" and "Look," was on assignment for "This Week" magazine. Janet had won a national sewing contest sponsored by the Singer Sewing Company. Although it was only a one-day job, it would change the course of the photographer's life.
"I went down there and made these pictures," he says. "All of a sudden, the food smells and all those farm smells came back to me." During the Depression years, Archie had lived in a farming community.
Archie liked the Hammer family immediately. They were honest, humble and hard working people. They were good people, he says. "There is a comfort quality in being around really good people."
Archie would return to the Hammer farm many times. "I always had to come back here, where the world made sense. I would stay at the home place on the second floor in the spare bedroom, and I would smell the wonderful smells."
While there, he got to thinking about the cyclical nature of things.
"I was making a picture of young Bill, who was walking beside his father on a tractor, and I thought, 'What would happen if I photographed this kid as he grows up, gets married and has a family of his own?'"
Archie then began to work on "Farm Boy," a 20-year project that followed Bill photographically into his early 30s. Archie now considers the book to be one of his best projects, and I can see why.
One of my favorite photos shows Bill and Willis at the kitchen table. Bill, with his T-shirt sleeves rolled up and revealing the emerging muscles of a soon-to-be man, is reaching for an ear of corn. Willis, in a buttoned-up work shirt, is slicing into a stick of butter. Both are grinning, as only two people who have engaged in hard work before sharing a relaxing moment can. When I look at the picture, I see it as a unique moment. Yet, I get the sense that it has repeated itself over and over in farm kitchens across America.
Most of Archie's photos are like that.
Archie tells his photography students to watch for what they see from "the corner of the eye." It is during those unplanned moments, when something grabs your attention and you don't exactly know why, but you take a picture anyway, that you get some of your best shots, he says.
With some photos, you never will know what led you to take it. He points to a shot he took of Bill walking at night with his girlfriend, Dorothy Hickman. "How the hell did I have the sense to make a picture like that and then find it and put it in this book?"
As great a photographer as he is, Archie says he is not creative. Only God can create. Photographers are a "discoverers," he says.
Archie also advises his students to get to know and understand the lives of their subjects. "What I did with the Hammers is insinuate myself into their lives, which I've always been embarrassed about."
Embarrassed or not, Archie believes one of his greatest achievements was to become so much a part of the Hammers' lives that they hardly gave a thought to his being there. One of his most gratifying moments occurred a few years after Bill married Dorothy and they returned home with their first baby. "Dorothy puts the baby in the crib, and I'm crouching in that little room, and Dorothy says, 'God, this is the first time I've been alone with her.' And I'm in the room hearing that!"
"Archie was always there taking pictures -- at weddings and graduations and during planting and harvest time," says Janet. (Janet later married Bill Brickner and now lives in Scales Mound.) "Archie was very easy to have around and very willing to stay in the background. He never had us pose for pictures."
In 1974, the same year the book was published, Archie and his wife Esther bought property in Jo Daviess County. They became permanent residents in 1984.
Many people from the city have moved to Jo Daviess County after falling in love with its beauty and its more relaxed lifestyle, but for Archie it was something more. "I really came out to be changed," he says. "I wanted to become more real, to have what the Hammers had, to have a sense of belonging to the land."
He says Willis and Bill knew before he did that he would make the county his home. "One time we went into Elizabeth, and they pointed out all these places. 'That's going to be your plumber. That's going to be your barber,' they said. They found this house for me."
The Liebermans live in a big, old farmhouse a mile or so down the road from Schapville. It has been updated and filled with cozy furniture. Surrounded by rolling cornfields and timber, it is Archie's favorite place to be. "I like looking over the barn and fields, where I can see for miles."
Willis and Bill are gone, but Archie and Esther have remained close friends with Janet and her family. "They have been to all our kids' weddings and our grandkids' graduations," Janet says. "The book came out a long time ago, so this wasn't just for the book."
Now in his late 70s, Archie is not so sure he is the person he thought he would become. "I really don't have the goodness of the Hammers," he says.
He says it was "selfish" of him to uproot Esther in order to move to the country. "She gave up a really lovely home in Evanston and friends to come out here. I came out here and gave up nothing. This is what I wanted."
"But I just had to do it," he adds.
Although he might not be the person he thought he would become, Archie has found a sense of place. "I used to say to the Hammers, 'You live in such a beautiful place.' They would say, 'Well, we live here, so we don't really notice.' I am that way now. I live it and I breathe it."
Archie stopped shooting pictures a few years ago. He says he has made every picture he wants to make. Until recently he taught photography at the University of Dubuque in Dubuque, Iowa. "I was a great photographer, and then I became a great teacher," he says.
He also reads, listens to National Public Radio and is catching up on the movies he missed during his busiest years. "I just saw 'The Blues Brothers' the other day.'"
The photographer says he feels accepted wherever he goes and enjoys chatting with people at the local grocery store. He feels honored to have been invited to join the 330 Club, a gun club in Dubuque, Iowa. "And I like our hospitals and doctors," he says. "I like our post office."
He feels something he never felt in suburban Chicago. "I feel as though Jo Daviess County embraces me."