Minnesota photographer makes waves with abstract images of Lake Superior

Minnesota photographer makes waves with abstract images of Lake Superior


Craig Blacklock has spent most of his life doing one thing: photographing Lake Superior.

When he was 5 years old, he saved his pennies to buy a Brownie Hawkeye camera and followed his father, pioneering nature photographer Les Blacklock, to the water.

Since then, he’s published 19 books, held 35 solo exhibitions and produced picture calendars for decades, many of which featured the world’s largest freshwater lake. Blacklock, who shoots mostly from his kayak, even spent 100 days circumnavigating the 31,700-square-mile lake in a kayak to photograph it from every rocky-beach and bare-cliff angle.

So you’d think he’d be maybe just a little tired of the subject.

Nope.

“I’m a kid in a candy store,” he said. “I’m 68 and I’m doing something brand new. In photography, it’s almost impossible to do something brand new. You can do better and you can do more, but it’s all been done.”

Instead of the “hyper real” photographs he’s become known for, his new book, “Light Waves,” is filled with highly magnified images of reflections on the never-still water. A celebration of light, color and movement, the book brings natural miracles largely left unseen into focus.

“I’m creating abstract images that are purely abstract, but they are the reflections of reality,” Blacklock said from his home and gallery in Moose Lake.

We talked to the lifelong Minnesotan about his enduring love for the lake, the pros and cons of growing up a Blacklock and how beautiful images can pack an environmental punch. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is it about Lake Superior that continues to fascinate you?
A: I’ve known the lake my whole life, since I was a kid traveling with my parents. From 1976, I started photographing the lake. It’s impossible to ever truly know it, with all its changes — the waves, the fog, the mists. It’s so dynamic. Lake Superior to me is what Yosemite was to Ansel Adams.

Q: You take pictures mostly from your kayak or from places accessible by kayak. Do you shoot all year?
A: Yes. Winter is my favorite on Lake Superior. It’s absolutely mesmerizing in the winter.

Q: Mesmerizing is a good description of the photos in “Light Waves.” How do you describe them?
A: A deconstructed Lake Superior landscape. I knew I wanted to photograph reflections, but I wanted to stay away from the cliche images of reflections in calm water. What I was most intrigued in exposing was the movement of water, in creating three-dimensional images. For more than 40 years, I’ve paddled this water and never really seen the details I’ve captured here.

Q: You’ve photographed the reflections of not just smoke on the water, but sun sparkles, orange lichens and ice-covered cliffs. The photos look to me like broad swaths of color, viscous fluid, kinetic squiggles. … Sorry, I’m not an art critic.
A: That’s what I want. I want my images to be toys for the imagination. I’m putting it out there for people to interpret what they see. It’s like lying down when you were a kid and looking up at the clouds. It brings me so much joy.

Q: It sounds as if these images weren’t easy to come by. You used two different kinds of cameras hooked together and shot at slow shutter speeds.
A. These are the most technically difficult photos I’ve taken. Everything was moving. And the same rules of composition I use to guide my nature photography guided the composition of these images.

Q: What do you hope people take away from your “Light Waves” photos?
A: I hope they pause at each one, inhabit it for a while and meditate. There are metaphors that are unique to you. When you look at a photograph of a deer, it’s a deer. When you look at an abstract photo, you’re looking at yourself.

Q: You — like your parents — are known as an environmentalist. Does this book carry a green message?
A: I’ve always shown the beauty of nature — to show what’s worth saving. Many of my colleagues have focused on the destruction. With this book, I still wanted my work to be beautiful, but I wanted it to show that nature is threatened by climate change, by overpopulation. I asked myself, “How can I show that sense of being out of balance, that dissonance?” Reflections were the perfect solution.

Q: You followed in the footsteps of your father, one of the early nature photographers. How did that help or hurt your career?
A: I definitely had doors open for me, but it was also frustrating. Five years into producing the “Minnesota Seasons” calendars with my dad, people would come up to me and say, “I buy your dad’s calendars every year. What do you do?”

Q: How did your father’s work shape yours?
A: Partly because I was in his shadow, I started to push my work. My dad was primarily interested in telling stories. He used a normal lens and showed you what the world looked like — the lichen and moss on the side of a [canoe] portage, things that were there but that you might not see. I fully embraced wide-angle lenses and telephoto lenses to show a different perspective.

Q: If your dad was a storyteller what are you?
A: I looked at myself as a guide. I was showing the epitome of what nature has to offer.

Q: Despite racking up books, winning national awards and being a household name in nature photography, you launched Kickstarter to get this book published. Why?
A: Everything has changed about photography. In the 1990s, it was easy to make money as a nature photographer. With the advent of digital cameras and affordable printers, there are so many people doing it now. Everyone in the business is struggling or giving up.

Q: But you’re not giving up?
Q: I’m already working on either a brand new [book] or a revised version of my “Lake Superior Images” [published in 1993]. This is the only thing I know how to do and I love it. It’s important from a conservation standpoint.

Catching the ‘Waves’

“Light Waves” is available at blacklockgallery.com and select independent bookstores, including Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis.

Craig Blacklock will be at book signings from 1-3 p.m. Dec. 16 at Excelsior Bay Books, 36 Water St., Excelsior, https://excelsiorbaybooks.indielite.org/ and from 1-3 Dec. 17 at Smith + Trade Mercantile, 229 Main St., Stillwater, https://smithandtrade.com/