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The story behind Minnesota’s official state photograph

Photographer Eric Enstrom composed “Grace” to represent survival in the face of hardship.

“Grace,” the Minnesota state photograph, taken by Eric Enstrom, c.1920.
Wikimedia Commons

Around 1920, the photographer Eric Enstrom took a picture of a white-bearded visitor to his studio in Bovey. The resulting image, which Enstrom called “Grace,” gained international recognition and was designated Minnesota’s official state photograph in 2002.

Eric Enstrom was a Swedish American photographer who lived and worked in the mining town of Bovey. Around 1920 (some accounts date the event to 1918), an itinerant salesman named Charles Wilden visited his studio. Impressed by what he recognized as kindness in the man’s face, Enstrom asked Wilden to pose for a picture. He had Wilden clasp his hands and bow his head, as in prayer, while seated at a table with an arrangement of household objects, including a book, a loaf of bread, and a bowl of soup. He called the photograph “Grace.”

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Enstrom composed “Grace” to represent survival in the face of hardship. He later connected it to World War I and the heavy toll the trenches of Europe had taken on American lives, as well as the rationing faced by Minnesotans on the home front. In a 1961 interview, he explained his intention to capture an image that would inspire thankfulness in people who had endured privations during the war. By highlighting Wilden’s devout posture and humble surroundings, he aimed to evoke the spirit of religious faith, thankfulness, and humility he associated with many of the newly arrived European immigrants to Minnesota.

As the 1920s progressed and tourists began to purchase “Grace” from Enstrom’s studio, the photograph became a well-known fixture in local churches, restaurants, and private homes. In 1926, Wilden signed over his rights in the image to Enstrom for five dollars and Enstrom registered a copyright.

Enstrom and his daughter, the artist Rhoda Nyberg, painted over prints of the originally black-and-white image to give it the appearance of a colorful oil painting. Nyberg continued to paint versions of the image for the rest of her life, even painting a matching image depicting an elderly woman.

During the 1950s, the Enstrom family sold the rights to “Grace” to Augsburg Publishing House in Minneapolis — a publisher associated with the American Lutheran Church. The photograph continued to grow in popularity in Minnesota and across the United States, and by 1961, Augsburg Publishing had sold twenty thousand prints.

In 2002, Senator Bob Lessard of International Falls and Representative Loren Solberg of Bovey sponsored a bill in the state legislature that designated “Grace” the official state photograph. Governor Jesse Ventura signed it into law later that year. Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer hung a sepia print of the photograph on her office wall, as specified in the bill.

In the 2010s, Augsburg Fortress (a new incarnation of Augsburg Publishing) continues to sell prints of “Grace.” Since 1995, the image has been in the public domain and can be found on many Web sites. The picture hangs in the cabin of the Northwestern, the Alaskan crab fishing boat featured in the Discovery Channel’s reality TV show “Deadliest Catch.” In 1993, a monument to “Grace” and its creator was erected near Bovey Village Hall.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.