Mark Brautigam’s series “On Wisconsin” is lighthearted, loving, and frequently beautiful. His vision relies on many years residing in Wisconsin and lots of love for the state; as he notes below, he couldn’t just pick up and head to California and find the same shots.
“The trips I make to produce these images have sort of become a refuge for me,” says Brautigam. “I really look forward to jumping in my car, turning off my cell phone, and spending time in those places where things don’t seem to be in a constant state of mild panic.”
Mark Brautigam is a photographer living in Milwaukee, WI. He attended the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Minnesota, and served as an officer in the United States Marine Corps for four years. All images © Mark Brautigam, all rights reserved.
Where does your love for Wisconsin begin? Where does it end?
It begins when it stays above 40 degrees. It ends when it dips below 40 degrees. There is supposed to be a high temperature of one degree below zero tomorrow. There isn’t much to love about that.
Your sensitivity for stillness and pose stands out, not just in the portraits but also the river shots. Is that in reaction to the subject? Part of your approach to photography?
Concerning landscapes and similar types of images, I think those qualities stem from a manifestation of a deep need for quiet and simplicity. The trips I make to produce these images have sort of become a refuge for me. I really look forward to jumping in my car, turning off my cell phone, and spending time in those places where things don’t seem to be in a constant state of mild panic.
In the case of portraits, I think it is actually a reaction the subject has to me and the camera. When somebody agrees to let me take a photograph of them and I pull out an 8x10 camera and take half an hour to set up the shot, they just seem to take on an air of quiet dignity and importance. I would imagine most people think if I’m taking the time to do this, it must mean something. An interesting note is that this especially seems to be the case with kids I’ve photographed. They’ve probably never even seen a camera like that before, but there is just something to it where they must think “this guy isn’t messing around.”
Are there other Wisconsin artists or photographers who inspire you?
What is inspiring to me are the people who do more than just talk about art but get up every day and actually make it. It’s what they live for and they do it for the right reasons. There definitely are some great artists in Wisconsin, and some are good friends of mine. Charles Dwyer, for instance, is a very accomplished painter and photographer who truly lives his life as an artist and is constantly mining everything around him for ideas. We’ve actually collaborated on a few projects. Another good friend, Charles Nevsimal, is not only an outstanding poet and writer, but he also runs a small press (Centennial Press) that publishes some exceptional poetry, both local and national. While not an artist in the context of this question, my friend Tom Crawford, who runs the independent radio station WMSE in Milwaukee, is just an infinite source of knowledge and a tireless champion of artistic diversity in a city that often struggles with that very thing. I’ve come to know Andy Adams via his online photography magazine flakphoto.com, and I’m very impressed with his vision and depth of taste. Sonja Thomsen and Kevin Miyazaki are two local photographers who are rapidly developing well-earned national reputations. And I have to say the debut album of Bon Iver was both heartbreaking and uplifting. It has become my soundtrack for the road.
What determines a shot? Is it a found moment, or are you setting up with an idea?
They are definitely found moments. There is a visceral reaction in me when I see something of interest. For a split second, something will mentally snap into place. While I do have an overarching criteria, namely that my subject needs to feel like the Wisconsin I want to portray, I also want it to have meaning beyond that. I want there to be a narrative or a commentary imbued in there somewhere.
I do think I have a natural attraction to the wistfully humorous. I spent almost three hours one day in July photographing people floating down the Wolf River in inner tubes. It was a gorgeous, sun-drenched day and there were hundreds of people floating lazily down the river with coolers of beer and my full intention was to make a carefree, sunny, fun-filled, drunk-on-an-inner tube photo. I think I shot eight sheets of film for that subject, seven of which would have fulfilled my initial intention just fine. But the one that meant the most to me was the shot that had a lone, unoccupied inner tube with a life vest dangling from it that materialized just as the sun passed behind a cloud. So, I think there are forces beyond my control telling me to stick with what I know.
Are you a lover or a fighter?
I’ve tried to be a fighter, but it never really stuck.
Could you transpose the enthusiasm behind this project to other states?
It’s funny you ask, because I was just thinking about this a few days ago. I would have to say the answer is no. So much of what I look for or react to has just been soaked into me from living most of my life here. I could apply those things to other states, but it would be meaningless.
What are you working on next?
Most importantly, I need to finish my “On Wisconsin” series, get gallery representation, and find a publisher that would like to produce a book of this work. Beyond that, I’ve thought about returning to a few areas in Wisconsin I’ve found intriguing and digging into them a little deeper. Right now, the idea of putting away the big camera and really exploring a few select areas in a more spontaneous fashion sounds appealing. But that would be a small project. Whenever I get an idea for a project, I write it down and see if it still sounds good in a few months. There is one project idea I’ve had for years, one of those “if I don’t do this I will regret it” ideas. It’s something that may be a bit tricky to get access to, but I sure as hell am going to try. But, of course, I am not going to tell you what it is.