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Thousands of tourists flock to Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula each year, drawn to the beauty of its 300 miles of shoreline jutting into Lake Michigan: the beaches in summer, the orange and yellow sugar maples in fall and spectacular ice formations on the lakes in winter. Photographer and videographer Brett Kosmider has dedicated much of his career to documenting life and nature in a place that he calls one of the “great anomalies in the world.”
That includes piloting his drone high above places otherwise inaccessible to people and capturing images that show how landscape is changing with the climate. And he contributed to Wisconsin Watch’s Imperiled Shores series to show what wildly fluctuating water levels mean for Northeast Wisconsin communities.
“Without preserving these places, Door County would not be what it is today,” Kosmider said. “The entire economy of the region depends on it. The importance of preserving these places is paramount. It should be a top-of-the-line issue.”
Kosmider, a Milwaukee-area native who began visiting Door County as a child when his parents bought a place in Fish Creek, moved to the county permanently after living in Arizona and Minnesota after college in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He is the co-founder and creative director at Peninsula Filmworks production company in Door County and also contributes images to the Door County Pulse and Door County Living, with some of his work being featured at the Miller Art Museum in Sturgeon Bay.
He recently chatted with me about what inspires his work and his concerns as a Door County resident about the peninsula’s ecological health.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Door County is a unique place in Wisconsin. How would you describe it to people who haven’t visited?
Door County is this long finger of rock that sticks out into a huge body of freshwater. It’s one of these great anomalies in the world. You can’t really find it anywhere else. And because of that, it attracts artists, entrepreneurs and visitors from all over the country who want to get away from the city. It attracts a lot of folks who appreciate the arts and the beauty, and there is definitely a synergy between nature and art up here.
The Northport ferry dock is seen perched atop the Door County peninsula on June 19, 2020. It serves as the gateway to Washington Island at the tip of Door County, Wis. Brett Kosmider
How did you get your start as a visual storyteller?
My dad was the shutterbug of the family, and we always took long car trips out west or to eastern Canada and he would be the one taking pictures. We always had a copy of National Geographic sitting on the coffee table, and I thought, “How cool would it be to travel around and take pictures of people?” In college it became clear there were a million photographers out there, and it seemed daunting to jump into that pool. But motion always interested me, especially documentary film. So it morphed from storytelling with photos to storytelling through cinema. But it’s really come full circle, and now I’m back to telling stories with pictures. It’s really very fulfilling.
How do you practice your craft in Door County? What inspires you?
Peninsula Filmworks produces narrative storytelling — mini-docs — for Destination Door County. They started out as 5- to 7-minute profiles of an artist or a topic about Door County that tells the stories of the people who live here. I gravitate towards the arts. People come here to visit but they may not think of things other than beer and cherry pie.
What do you want people to see through your art and photography?
There are two main bodies of work that I think people know me for. I have explored the landscape of Door County through abstract drone photography. There are patterns and there is chaos in nature. And between the two, there is abstraction, and that’s what fascinates me.
I can go out to places that people will never go because they are inaccessible. Every single day you can go out in the same spot and the ice is going to look different, whether it’s the wave action, or the freezing and thawing or the way the light is hitting it.
It also helps my understanding of how ice plays a role in climate change and how climate change will impact the amount of ice we have and in turn, how that impacts communities.
Also, as we are all learning, wetlands are very important for storing water, whether it’s a flood event or storm event — mitigating that boundary between the rising lake and someone’s home. I love finding these places from the air. I’m then encouraged to do a deep dive to understand what I’m seeing. Like, I might learn that I’m looking at a rare alkaline lake with a marl bottom that’s important for migratory birds and rare butterfly species.
It’s all interconnected. Everything that Aldo Leopold (the Wisconsin scientist and philosopher who pioneered wildlife ecology) said, he was right. The more that I explore those areas, the more comfortable I am championing those issues.
My other body of work is the study of motion and the horizon. I will purposely frame a horizon dead center in the frame, and it creates tension in that I’m not creating bias. I’m forcing the viewer to choose what is important to them. Those will be long exposures, a study of motion over time. The clouds will be going by, and the water and the lake are doing something active, and it creates an ethereal atmospheric effect. The idea is to stack these images next to each other so the horizons are lined up. The horizon is something we all have.
My idea is to use the horizon as a connecting point between the urbanized lake shore and the wild shore in places like Door County.
How did you become interested in climate change?
I tend to absorb things by doing lots of reading. I’ve always been fascinated by the natural world, and you see that the writing is on the wall with how things are changing, even in my lifetime. Just look at the lake levels for instance, whether that’s climate change driven or not, it’s obvious that things are in flux. For me, that begs some attention. I want to know why. Why is the lake super low one year and six years later, it’s the highest it’s ever been recorded?
There are a handful of places here that are tough to get to, and nobody goes there. And those are the places where you can still have that sense of wild in Door County. The state parks and the places the Door County Land Trust have preserved are essential to what makes our economy tick. The importance of preserving these places is paramount. There are a lot of people who are working hard to preserve these places, and their work is invaluable to the quality of life here.
What keeps you motivated?
We have an amazing opportunity to photograph near the water at any time of day. There’s a lot of opportunity here to make very compelling work because the light is very special. Spring is one of my favorite times of year, because it’s like a rebirth and you can see nature coming back to life after the winter slumber. I also like this time of year because of the starkness of it. You can do some interesting compositions with trees and sky. It is that pursuit of beautiful light that is always inspiring to me.
‘Preserving these places is paramount’: How photographer Brett Kosmider documents Door County, Wisconsin’s fragile, changing landscape is a post from WisconsinWatch.org, a non-profit investigative news site covering Wisconsin since 2009. Please consider making a contribution to support our journalism.