The heritage of hunting, preserved in photographs

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Wisconsin artist Travis DeWitz aimed to capture the spirit of hunting in his most recent photo documentary, Blaze Orange. Travis, who is based in Eau Claire, works professionally as a portrait photographer, but is passionate about documentary photography because it allows him to capture history and what "might not be there tomorrow." As a native Wisconsinite, Travis grew up hunting and wanted to honor his experience, and the experience of many hunters in Wisconsin. Blaze Orange is a photography project that allowed him to explore one of Wisconsin's great legacies: deer hunting season.

“When I was 13 I bought my first 35mm film camera. I took pictures until the film developing costs got too expensive… but in my 20’s digital cameras came out and it was so much easier to experiment with photography, so that’s when I really got hooked.

I’m a portrait photographer, but I’m also really interested in documentary. With documentary, really you're capturing history. What you’re photographing might not be there tomorrow. And a lot of the stuff I do document has a short life span. Deer hunting, for example - the gun season, is only 9 days long.

Deer hunting is huge in Wisconsin. Almost everybody knows someone that's a hunter. I used to hunt. I grew up with it. I know how important it is to Wisconsin, to our history, our culture.

So after not hunting for 10, 15 years… there's a nostalgia that I felt for it. I missed getting ready early in the morning, going out in the woods, spending all day - all week - out there, then going into the small towns and meeting back up with the fellow hunters you knew from the years before. I missed the feeling of all of it. So I started this photography project called Blaze Orange because I wanted to re-capture some of that.

What got reaffirmed for me through this project was that hunting is much deeper than a lot of non-hunters think it is. I talked to a lot of the hunters during the project, and for most of them, the main thing that they really love about deer hunting is the camaraderie with their friends and family. They love being able to pass down their knowledge to their kids. They love how hunting makes them kind of self sufficient. They also love getting their kids out in the woods because great life lessons are there.

So I hope this project will show the deeper side of hunting, the connections and the community and the history. There’s a reason we’ve been doing this so long in Wisconsin. It means something to us.”

15016196_1104942566280380_4602643474121019910_o.jpg"When I would hunt as a boy, it was mainly guys out there. There really were very, very few girls or women in the woods. But when I went out to do this series years later, that had changed dramatically. Of the kids age of 17 and younger, like 75% of them are girls. It really blew me away. There’s just a natural trend that women have been getting more accepted in hunting and so they go. A lot of them are invited to come with Dad and Grandpa… or with Mom or Grandma. For younger kids, I think they go more for the extra time and bonding than it is for the hunting.

This girl was out with her grandpa. she's just scoping a corn field, white snow all around. I took the photo and let them go on their way."

15138504_1104947102946593_7813370624700609405_o.jpg"There are some rough guys out there. They're out hunting and they've been waiting all year to do this. A lot of them go to the extreme to be undetectable. They're very planned, very strategic. So going into this project, asking folks to let me interrupt them from hunting to take pictures and talk to them… I felt my luck was going to be very slim.

But instead, I was blown away. Everybody I asked to do photos with said yes. Zero problems. Everybody was excited to a part of this. That shows you right there what hunting means to all these people.

They were so willing to be a part of me documenting it even though they're actively hunting and they only get nine days to do this. The opening weekend's a big rush to do what you can, and they made time for me or let me tag along. That was really eye-opening, I was really blown away by the acceptance."

15068455_1104946106280026_2914265549257354337_o.jpg15025615_1104946052946698_4329103642443793551_o.jpg"This is a deer hunting cabin if there ever was one. The off-kilter microwave sitting there, the bug spray on the counter, the American flag draping from the ceiling. You can tell everybody's having a good time; they're sitting around the table talking. You can just imagine the stories they're telling, while the peanut shells and beer cans pile up on the table.

That cabin had everything you could ask for. Miller Hi Life signs galore. I remember as a kid going with my dad during deer hunting into taverns and seeing those Hi Life mirrors… every bar had one in Wisconsin. Every single bar. You don't really see them anymore, but this hunting cabin has collected quite a few. That just brought back memories for me.

I think a lot of people could picture themselves in a place like this cabin - it’s so iconic, so I wanted to capture it through the window - on the outside looking in."

14991384_1104946692946634_2582881765829194886_o.jpg"I love this one. This is at the Sand Creek Café in Sand Creek Wisconsin. It’s kind of a hardware store, general store, museum, café, and bait shop all in one. There's a little bit of everything in this place. The walls are decorated with tons of artifacts and taxidermy. At this table is a grandfather and his grandson, fueling up before the hunt.

The generation between these two - the grandson's dad or the granddad’s son - he’s away because he’s serving in the military. He wasn't able to make it out for hunting this year. But even in his absence, the grandson still made sure he came up. They kept on with the tradition. So there they are, happily enjoying a good breakfast before they went back out in the woods."

-Travis Dewitz, describing his image from Blaze Orange