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 he saved his money to buy a Brownie Hawkeye camera and followed his father, the pioneering wildlife photographer Les Blacklock, to the water.

Since then he has published 19 books, held 35 solo exhibitions and for decades produced pictorial calendars, many of which featured the world’s largest freshwater lake. Blacklock, who photographs primarily from his kayak, even spent 100 days circling the 31,700-square-mile lake in a kayak, photographing it from every rocky beach and bare cliff corner.

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


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

Instead of the “hyperreal” photographs he’s known for, his new book, Light Waves, is filled with magnified images of reflections off the never-still water. The book celebrates light, color and movement, and focuses on natural wonders that largely go unseen.

“I create abstract paintings that are purely abstract but reflect reality,” Blacklock said from his home and gallery in Moose Lake.

We spoke to the lifelong Minnesotan about his enduring love for the lake, the ins and outs of growing up as a Blacklock, and how beautiful pictures can impact the environment. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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

Q: You mostly shoot from your kayak or from places that are accessible by kayak. Do you shoot all year?
A: Yes. Winter is my favorite on Lake Superior. In winter it is absolutely mesmerizing.

Q: Mesmerizing is a good description of the photos in Light Waves. how do you describe her
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 fascinated me the most was the movement of water in creating three-dimensional images. I’ve been paddling this water for more than 40 years and I’ve never really seen the detail I’ve captured here.

Q: You not only photographed the reflections of smoke on the water, but also sunbeams, orange lichen and ice-covered cliffs. The photos look to me like broad swaths of color, viscous liquids, kinetic flourishes. … Sorry, I’m not an art critic.
A: That’s what I want. I want my paintings to be toys for the imagination. I’m posting it so people can interpret what they see. It’s like lying down as a kid and looking up at the clouds. It brings me so much joy.

Q: It sounds like these images weren’t easy to come by. They connected two different types of cameras together and took pictures with slow shutter speeds.
A. These are the most technically difficult photos I have ever taken. Everything was in motion. And the same compositional rules I use for my nature photography guided the composition of these images.

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

Q: Like your parents, you are known as an environmentalist. Does this book carry a green message?
A: I have always shown the beauty of nature – to show what is worth saving. Many of my colleagues have focused on 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 this sense of imbalance, this dissonance?” Reflections were the perfect solution.

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

Q: How did your father’s work shape yours?
A: Partly because I was in his shadow, I began to push my work forward. My father was primarily interested in storytelling. He used a regular lens and showed you what the world looked like – the lichen and moss on the side of one [canoe] Portage, things that were there but you might not see. I totally tuned into wide-angle lenses and telephoto lenses to show a different perspective.

Q: If your father was a storyteller, what are you?
A: I considered myself a leader. I showed the epitome of what nature has to offer.

Q: Despite collecting books, winning national awards, and being a household name in wildlife photography, you created Kickstarter to publish this book. Why?
A: Everything has changed in photography. It was easy to make money as a wildlife photographer in the 1990s. With the advent of digital cameras and affordable printers, there are now so many people doing it. Everyone in business fights or gives up.

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

Catch the “waves”.

Light Waves is available from blacklockgallery.com and select independent bookstores including Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis.

Craig Blacklock will be present at Excelsior Bay Books, 36 Water St., Excelsior, https://excelsiorbaybooks.indielite.org/ on December 16 from 1-3pm and Smith + Trade Mercantile on December 1-3, 17 , main street 229, Stillwater, https://smithandtrade.com/


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