Mark Brautigam's unconventional 'On Wisconsin'
By Mary Louise Schumacher of the Journal Sentinel
Sept. 22, 2011
There are writers who use few words and spare language, who tell stories where very little seems to happen, and yet manage to tell us something of significance about a people and place.
Mark Brautigam’s photography is like that.
Attracted to seemingly unremarkable people and places across the Wisconsin landscape, a muted palette and the kind of all-over, flat light that many photographers avoid, Brautigam spent five years creating a meditative photographic series called “On Wisconsin.”
From a desolate street in Superior to a humble airplane shed in Delevan, from a 90-year-old woman raking in her yard in Hurley to a group of horses that gaze at us with a look of recognition in Boaz, these are images of quiet dignity and a knowing portrait of our state.
It is Brautigam’s first major art project, completed about a year ago. This project marks Brautigam's debut into the contemporary art scene here, and he is already getting significant recognition.
"On Wisconsin" has been included in a showcase of contemporary Milwaukee aritsts, the "Current Tendencies" exhibit at the Haggerty Museum of Art. It is also on view in one of Milwaukee's most established galleries, a space that doesn't exhibit photography frequently, the Tory Folliard Gallery.
“For me, it’s all about looking, as simple as that sounds,” he says. “I always go back to the quiet parts of the state. I really wanted to get to the pureness of the state.”
In fact, it was a project born of reluctance.
Brautigam spent four years in the U.S. Marine Corps stationed at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, Calif. He found the beauty of the West Coast epic and intoxicating – it’s what made him invest in a camera and get serious about shooting in the first place.
“California is grandly beautiful and super diverse...it’s sexy,” says Brautigam, who grew up in Franklin. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, what have I been missing.’”
He traveled much of the world with the Marines, too, including the Pacific, the Middle East and Africa, among other places. But there wasn’t much opportunity to explore on his own, he said.
When his four years in the service was up, the idea of returning home didn’t hold much appeal, said Brautigam, now 38.
“I wasn’t thrilled to be back, but I wanted to do something good,” he says. “So I decided to just start photographing around the state. I didn’t even know what it was about then.”
His process stood in contrast to his life in the Marines. He had solitude and the freedom to explore at his own pace.
He’d open a map book, pick some general area of the state – like the northwestern corner – plot out a rough route and go. Brautigam, who works as an art director for GS Design in Glendale, would go in stints of three or four days at a time.
He also chose to work with a large format, 8x10 camera, a bulky, fussy instrument that can take hours to set up properly.
It’s a process that requires patience and a certain watchfulness. And it was slow. He liked that.
“It was a good escape,” he said. “It was a search for solitude and a reaction to not really digging the constant chatter and clutter of life.”
Sometimes, he’d set up the shot and wait on the world to cooperate with his aesthetic aims. He’d wait for the sky to cloud over, for horses to return to their pen or for the right circumstances to coalesce.
One July day, he spent an afternoon shooting people floating down the Little Wolf River until a person-less inner tube with an empty life jacket attached to it drifted into the frame. It was the kind of small detail that added a note of mystery, darkness and wit to the picture.
It’s also the kind of detail that makes you hear writing in your mind, that implies narrative, an underlying current in this body of work.
“I see more than just these old-fashioned, old Wisconsin places,” says gallery owner Tory Folliard. “I keep thinking, with each one, who’s in that place?”
There is the impossibly small house, overgrown by weeds and trees, with an upright green soda bottle and newspaper on the porch. There’s the King’s Hotel in Pleasant Prairie, a low-slung, ramshackle outfit with a pay phone, shovel and faded, fold-up stroller out front. There’s the cluster of beige buildings huddled beneath the rusting water tower bearing the town’s name: Luck.
“I’d always want there to be some kind of...if not a story at least an introduction or a piece of a story,” says Brautigam. “A lot of the people I saw were like archetypal characters or I’d be attracted to the landscape.”
These are literate, grounded images of quiet beauty that never seem to indulge in plaintiveness or kitsch, things that even accomplished photographers tend to fall into when exploring the Wisconsin landscape.
There is a sense of isolation and stillness in many of the pictures, including some with figures fishing or wading alone in large bodies of water. And then there’s a pervasive grayness of light, of overgrowth and cold that, for better or worse, will feel like home to many of us.
But all of this serves to turn our attention to other things, elemental things like the earth itself, the richness of the soil, which is damp, gashed open, upturned, piled up and laid bare in many of the images.
And the people, many of whom look at us with a matter-of-fact directness, seem to exist within and up against these elemental forces with resilience and steadfastness.
“Wisconsin is really beautiful,” Brautigam says. “It is a more understated beauty, but it’s a gorgeous state. I needed to be a little more mature to realize that. The people are really nice. You could do a lot worse.”