South of Milwaukee, Shot on Film

South of Milwaukee, Shot on Film

1800 1207 Leah Damgaard-Hansen

Wisconsin was a place I never expected to spend much time. Although half my childhood took place on the plains of its neighbor, Minnesota, I confess I always overlooked it. I had a vague idea that there are pretty parts along the shores of the Great Lakes, but when I had time and means to travel I was more interested in London, Paris, the mountains of Norway, the coast of Portugal. And after a decade or so in Denmark, I was in love with the ocean—the inland, ten thousand lakes or no, had gotten too dry for me.

Then a short-term job contract near Milwaukee came up at a time when I was free to pursue unexpected opportunities. Although we’d never considered living or even visiting there, my partner and I couldn’t come up with anything better than “why not?” and packed up our Jeep.

I would be tuning pianos—my day job—and was not thinking overmuch about photography as we took leave of New York, where we had been for two years. To be frank, dear reader, I wasn’t sure there would be much for me to photograph. I had enough memories of being lost amidst cornfields, soybeans, and cattle as a child in southern Minnesota. And it was winter. Still, I packed the usual suspects: my Pentax ME Super, plenty of rolls of Ilford HP5 and Kodak Tri-X 400. I happened to have one odd roll of Kodak Gold 200 rolling around and threw that in, too.

Returning to the Midwest as an adult was a janusian experience. Both stranger and familiar, I recognized yet felt alienated from cultural mores, landscapes, and local habits. (My man, a native New Yorker, had no illusions about any of it being familiar.) The only sublet we could find was a little duplex in a sausage town south of Milwaukee; and the only work he could find was on the production line of a small local factory cold-pressing juice for the Green Bay Packers. Wrapped up in work, trying to keep alive a little cluster of houseplants I’d brought along in a wine crate, I left my cameras in their (personal) suitcase for a couple weeks before—as an afterthought—I tucked the Pentax into its customary place in a corner of my toolkit.

Then I met the trees.

I’ve always had a special attachment to trees, an affection I’ve turned into an ongoing project of Tree Portraits. When I began photographing the trees of Wisconsin, something shifted. One afternoon, driving across an expanse of flat, winter-brown country, I noticed a grove of tall, gnarly, dark giants. I was tired and stiff-shouldered from tuning three pianos in quick succession, and late for the fourth. Seeing the trees, though, I couldn’t help but pull over for a quick shot out the window.

Before driving on, I lowered the camera and just sat for a moment, looking at them. Burly pickup trucks whizzed past, but I had left the present moment; flown back Peter Pan-like to the early 90s, the Minnesota portion of my life, peering through endless corridors of ripening corn as I dreamed incessantly of other worlds. I longed to be an explorer like characters in my favorite stories. Minnesota farmland didn’t offer much fodder for young would-be Indiana Joneses or Lucy Pevensies, but any odd patch of trees along the edges of a cornfield could be kindling for imagination nonetheless—grassy pools of adventuresome possibility.

That first photograph didn’t quite turn out, but it opened a door to a new project. And perhaps more importantly, a reinforcement of the truth that art and seeing are limited by nothing but ourselves. I found more trees—wild strange things, even a little frightening. Many of them stood alone and untamed by their landscapes, last holdouts of wilderness in huge machine-tilled fields. I felt companionship with them. Others stood in groups, distant but together, little snow flurries haunting their black branches.

Not all of the photographs were as easy as pulling over and leaning out the window. One snowy, ice-edged pool surrounded by sombre trees lay back from the road a bit. Wiggling through some clutching bushes, I framed and took the first shot, then decided to get closer for a tighter composition of the reflections. Without warning, the ground gave way and I plunged into bitter, icy black muck up to my knees. Floundering, I checked to make sure Pentax was okay—much the way one might check for bullet wounds on a battlefield. Pentax was fine. My boots on the other hand were so well stuck that I had to step out of them, wade around in the freezing mud, dig them out one-handedly, and toss them up the bank—my other hand still occupied keeping Pentax aloft.

I walked in stocking-feet back to the car along a cold Midwestern county road shoulder. I gingerly dropped my muddy boots onto the passenger side floor, peeled off my socks, turned on the heater, and drove home to a long hot shower. 

One shot nearly didn’t happen. One evening in Racine, well past an early December sunset, I saw a glowing lamppost, and beyond it, the rising moon over Lake Michigan. A yellow road-sign seemed to point nowhere in particular. Immediately I envisioned a moody photograph on Tri-X, shooting at 800 or maybe even 1600. But I had one frame left of the Gold 200. My meter showed an impossibly slow shutter speed, yet I couldn’t bring myself to waste the frame on the ground or some such. I braced myself, took the shot, loaded Tri-X, and moved on.

Months later in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin already a strange and distant sojourn in personal history, scans from those two months came back. At the very end of the Kodak Gold, the lamp-and-moon shot came up. I’d already seen the black-and-white shots from that evening, and they weren’t bad, but the improbable Gold 200 shot had the magic.

Idly, I began hunting for a name. Moon, lamp, dusk, night, lake… I rolled the words over in my mind, wondering that it can be so difficult to give a photograph a name that’s neither too much nor too little. Defaulting to a simple location or date usually never fails, but this shot seemed to ask for more. I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

My New Yorker gave a little chuckle. I knew he had it. “Second Star to the Right.”

Which, of course, it was. Neverland glimpsed from the shores of Lake Michigan.

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Leah Damgaard-Hansen

Leah Damgaard-Hansen is a photographer, writer, and filmmaker. Born in Norway, raised in Denmark and the U.S. Midwest, she now lives between south Denmark and New York. You can find more of her work at

All stories by:Leah Damgaard-Hansen
  • Thank you for a good read, you have a nice way of writing. Love some of the tree photos too!

  • Great work : love it !
    An impressive talent of composition and shadows : Bravo !
    Truly artistic.

  • Your photos of the trees sparked memories for me. I spent a few days in eastern Wisconsin three summers ago. I was there to attend and photograph an air show, but I spent some time driving through the gorgeous farm land to the west of Green Bay on my way between the show and my AirBnb. I was totally blown away by the landscapes and lush rolling fields, dusted here and there with barns, silos, and old tractors. I would absolutely go back to the same place to spend a few days shooting the farms and rural scenes of Wisconsin.

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Leah Damgaard-Hansen

Leah Damgaard-Hansen is a photographer, writer, and filmmaker. Born in Norway, raised in Denmark and the U.S. Midwest, she now lives between south Denmark and New York. You can find more of her work at

All stories by:Leah Damgaard-Hansen