On the site of Mark Brautigam there is a single portfolio: “On Wisconsin”. A series of large-format photographs of landscapes, buildings, cities and portraits. Photographs from the stunning palette, the cold tone of snow, calm and quite, as silent as they where suspended outside of time. I particularly like Mark Brautigam photos because they stay halfway between photojournalism and personal vision, between objectivity and the pure beauty of aesthetics, they tell me the objective truth and at the same time they make me dream, they are iconic and straight at the same time.
In the following article Mark Brautigam introduces his project “On Wisconsin” and tells the story of three of his photographs.
I climbed back into my car after photographing an unfilled swimming pool in a field not too far from where I lived in Wisconsin. Thinking to myself it might be interesting to do this kind of thing all around the state, it suddenly struck me that I had a whisper of a plan. A framework to work within. It felt good. I grew up in Wisconsin and found myself betting its character had worked itself into my mental fabric sufficiently enough to find reflection. It is a land of lakes, rivers, trees, and fields. Even in the summertime, there is a darkness to it. Some states shout. Wisconsin murmurs. It could be haunted. I was ready to begin.
That was five years ago and I’m still making photographs for my ongoing series entitled “On Wisconsin”. When I started this series, I’d never taken a photography course (I still haven’t). I barely knew what I was doing technically and conceptually. It has been an organic process on every front. I’ve had to feel my way through every stage of it. Even now that I’ve passed many of those technical and conceptual hurdles, this is still a project I am feeling my way through. But there’s a vibe to it I can latch on to. It may still take me a long time to find a subject, but now I know it when I see it, and with much more clarity. My experience tells me a larger project like this develops its own life. It’s an ongoing dialogue between you and each subject. Sometimes it requires a quick reaction. Sometimes it requires a slow down. Time to think and evaluate what you want to do with this thing.
It was a crisp May evening, and I was driving through Hurley, a gruff town south of the Wisconsin-Michigan border, when I saw this old lady raking her garden. Immediately I was struck by the way she was dressed and by the faded yellow house contrasted against the darkened trees. I pulled over and asked her if she’d let me take her portrait. She politely declined. She’s the only person so far who’s actually said no to me. But I did get her consent to photograph her while she raked her garden, which I believe ended up making for a much more interesting picture. Denial, I’m sure, rarely works out that well. As I was packing up my gear, her daughter and son-in-law drove up and I got their information to send them a print if the photo turned out nicely. The old lady was 90 years old. Her name, Enrica DeFerro.
On my way out of Hurley I made a quick detour through the town of Gile. Located on the Gile Flowage, it’s not much more than a one-road town. I passed a bar: Frank’s Bar. Its sign, a glowing illustration of two drunk fish, the word ‘Food’ ablaze in neon below it. Several thoughts surfaced simultaneously. I grew up addicted to fishing. School years were just interim periods between fishing seasons with my dad and my brother. My girlfriend’s father was named Frank. He passed away several years ago, before I could ever meet him, but the first picture I ever saw of him was one in which he was hoisting a gigantic northern pike. And I don’t think I need to go into the prominence that bars hold in the state of Wisconsin. I always carry around a small book of prints with me when I am on the road. I pulled over and took out the prints. Paging through them, I tried to figure out where a photo of this bar would fit best. I decided to come back in winter. It’s always risky to leave a potential photograph. Things change, and this place could be gone when I come back. But, I had a pretty strong feeling about it, so I left. One photograph taken. One photograph planned.
About eight months later, I traveled back up to Gile. It had been bitterly cold, but on the day I made it back to Frank’s Bar, the temperature climbed up to the mid-20’s. It wasn’t quite the right light when I arrived, so I decided to take a walk down to the flowage. On my way, I passed a white house buried in snow. A cross hung from the door and a ‘Beware of Dog’ sign was visible in the window. I could see mail was jammed into the door handle, and sunlight was skimming across the snow and house. This was either a vacation home or something had gone tragically wrong. In my mind, there were two potentials in this scene. The potential for an untold story and the potential for the sun to eventually liberate the house. The light was not going to stick around for long, so I raced back to my car, drove down to the house, and set up the photograph at a clip I rarely work at. After I took the photograph, I quickly loaded my camera back into my car. By then, it was time to get back to Frank’s Bar.
As I was setting up to photograph Frank’s, a man drove up in his car. He got out and walked toward the bar door. “What the FUCK are you doin’?” he asked. I told him what I do and asked if he’d be interested in being in a photograph. He was already a little buzzed. He had the right look. He could be one hell of a fisherman. As he stood in the doorway with the sunlight just leaving the front of the building, I took the photograph. Despite his introduction, he was a fairly gracious man. He seemed genuinely impressed with the process and I felt that this would give him a story to tell. I got his contact information (I always try to send a print to people I photograph), and he thanked me with a sincerity that was warming. I shook his hand. He walked into the bar, and I, back to my car.