When Mark Brautigam returned to his home state of Wisconsin in 2000 after serving in the Marines in San Diego, he didn’t know what to do. None of the jobs he’d been considering appealed to him. He was thinking about going back to school. “When I got back, I was used to that grand, epic California landscape, and it was so foreign to me. I had this new appreciation for a subtler, quieter sort of place like Wisconsin,” Brautigam said.
One day he put his large-format camera in his car and set out looking for photographs. He’d only started taking photos when stationed at Camp Pendleton and was completely untrained. “I had no idea what I was doing. It was bad. I was shooting 8-by-10 film. In hindsight, I should have grabbed at least a medium-format camera and tried to figure it out that way,” Brautigam said.
But Brautigam kept traveling, inspired by the work of photographers such as William Eggleston, Joel Sternfeld, and Lee Friedlander to push his craft beyond the snapshots he’d taken in San Diego. “I just wanted to give an honest portrayal of the state, one maybe counter to the one often in the media—the cheesehead-wearing Packers fan or Laverne and Shirley, those stereotypes that every state deals with,” Brautigam said.
Brautigam started his series, “On Wisconsin,” in Milwaukee, gradually venturing farther until he’d reached every corner of the state. Along the way, he captured unconventional landscapes and made quiet, contemplative portraits of people he met. “It’s a result of what these little trips became for me, a total escape from work, social media, politics, all that stuff. I’d just throw my camera in the car and go out of the city to some quieter places,” he said.
Often, the photos show Brautigam’s eye for sly humor and irony. They also tell a story of Wisconsin through the seasons. “The weather is such an important part of living here,” Brautigam said. “Either you battle the weather all year, or you embrace it. Spring and summer are awesome, fall is cool, winter sucks, and you just deal with it.”
About three years into the project, Brautigam finally hit his stride. He had found the right tone for his series and was getting more “keepers” on every trip. In 2010, he completed the project. By then, he felt he’d had a proper reunion with his state, one whose full majesty he had not previously completely realized. “It was surprising to me. I hadn’t traveled a lot of it growing up. It’s really beautiful,” he said.