photographer's work includes the '60s, top commercial jobs, studio in the woods
A few miles down bright country roads from Colfax, a large house sits amidst acres and acres of picturesque northern Wisconsin wilderness. This pristine sanctuary isn’t just a residence, however; it’s also Steven Braker’s newest occupation incarnation – the aptly named “Studio in the Woods.” Here Steve works his trade – collaborating with local businesses to help with promotion (Braker has decades of advertising experience), taking studio portraits of families and students, and even heading workshops and classes, through the Dunn County Artist Tour that he co-founded, instructing teenagers in the basics of photography.
Braker’s “Studio In The Woods” affords him solitude and privacy, but also the opportunity to be surrounded by potential art subjects: “You can’t control light or background in nature like you can in a studio. You have to compose the picture by searching, by watching. Sometimes I come out for days, just searching, seeing, before I even bring a camera with me.” And something in Braker’s eyes suggest that he’s been searching, composing, so long that it has become a part of him.
Braker’s long and varied journey – from striking out west in the ’60s wielding only a camera and a desire to somehow be part of the zeitgeist of protest and unrest of the time, to working as a stringer for prestigious publications like Time and Life magazines, to being an acting senior advertising photographer in the “still-photo Hollywood” of Chicago and boasting national accounts with the likes of JC Penney, Sharper Image, Mattel, Target, the Sears Roebuck catalog, and Spiegel – certainly displays this Wisconsinite’s extensive experience with (and more so, passion for) the visual medium of photography. But, in truth, it all started with painting.
“My parents owned a supper club in Menomonie, and we lived above the bar. I had to be quiet, so I drew a lot,” Braker says, explaining the catalyst of his life-long relationship with visual art. Eventually he began to research artists like Rembrandt in an attempt to study and emulate their techniques, spending hours and years honing his painting skills. This was all before he even reached high school. “Then, in high school, oil painting didn’t really fit with any curriculum, but they let me continue to paint in the broom closet,” he said His persistence and dedication to art found a new outlet when he was a senior at Stout, and legendary photographer Ansel Adams visited the campus and inspired Braker to start photography classes. Forty years later, Braker’s portfolio, the eclectic mass of his work, can barely be contained within the walls of his home.
Braker’s career has put him in the same room with a soon-to-be-killer tiger (a few weeks after the photo-shoot, it attacked and killed its trainer), got him followed and watched by the FBI for photographing William Kunstler, put him on stage and mere feet away from the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, and the Doors, but most of all, to him, it has given him a way of life and the ability to be a part of something larger: “If you’re interested in people, in the world, in its story, photography allows you see, preserve, and, most importantly, participate in that story.”
Staring up at his pictures – captured images covering the walls of his Studio in the Woods – of hundreds of times, places, stories, and especially people, Braker remarks, “It’s in the eyes. The eyes are the centerpiece of a picture. They give life to a person, to a picture, and reveal them.” Coming from a photographer, someone whose existence and creativity hinges on the eyes and vision, this seems poetic, and somewhere in the landscape of frozen moments spread before him, it seems that some part of Braker is captured, composed – that his pictures catch life and create art, and make it wonderfully difficult to tell the difference between the two.