Fire on the Rim.
Titles like these ring-out like lines from a well-written poem. They sound as if they might be inscribed on neat little placards in a modern art gallery beneath some abstract work of art, but what they denominate is much more subtle, much closer to home.
These are a few of the titles that North Shore photographer Christian Dalbec has given to his photographs, photos that capture the interplay of water and light, a relationship that Dalbec has devoted the past decade of his life to exploring on Lake Superior through the lens of his Nikon.
“I grew up along the Lake Superior shoreline,” says Dalbec, who has been living in Two Harbors ever since he was adopted from the Twin Cities as a 6-month-old. “I used to love playing in and around Superior as a kid, especially in the Stewart River area there.”
“I think that that’s when I first started appreciating the Lake,” continues Dalbec. “I guess, in a lot of ways that hasn’t changed, I still love to ‘play’ along the Lake.”
Lake Superior is known for many things—for its incredible size, for its frigid waters and rugged shore—but perhaps its most outstanding features are its waves.
Lake Superior’s waves can be as tall as 30 feet, perhaps even larger depending on whether ship captains’ accounts can be believed. Superior’s waves are as magnificent as anything that you would find out on the ocean, but it is the smaller, more subtle waves that define Dalbec’s work.
As one of the preeminent photographers on the North Shore, Dalbec specializes in wave and water photography “in and around the lake.” Dalbec has also recently gotten into drone work, and his collection now includes stunning shots of Lake Superior from above—a perspective that contrasts beautifully with his close-up work on the Lake’s surface.
Dalbec finds beauty in the minutiae of the Lake, in Superior’s details. Scrolling through his digital gallery is seeing the Lake through the eyes of someone who knows it intimately. What is most striking about his work is that it’s not the largest, most dramatic waves that stand out and instill a sense of awe, but rather the gentle crests that are so often overlooked.
“I’ve been up here living in Two Harbors basically all of my life,” says Dalbec, “but it wasn’t until 2011 that I got into photography and started getting out on the Lake like I do now.”
“A big part of my story,” continues Dalbec, “is that I got into drinking young, and that kind of took over like it does for a lot of people. I was a heavy alcoholic up until 2011 when I finally cleaned up, and honestly that’s how I found the camera.”
Dalbec was always interested in photography, but had a hard time finding the energy to pursue the craft while working through his addiction. So, when he did manage to “clean up” in 2011, he set to work turning his interest in photography into a passion.
“What got me started,” says Dalbec, “was a free workshop that I was able to take part in that John Gregor with ColdSnap Photography put on through the Arrowhead public library system.”
“After [the workshop] John and I stayed in touch,” continues Dalbec, “and I continued stopping by his studio in town, bugging him with questions about this and that, and as I developed and improved as a photographer, so too did our relationship. Eventually he became more of a friend than a teacher.”
Dalbec was quick to pick up his new craft, and before long he and Gregor were getting out to “shoot” with one another, work together on projects, and co-teach workshops. According to Dalbec, Gregor even started to “look up to” him in some ways, something that Dalbec describes as “an incredible honor.”
Dalbec is a self-described “gear head,” so underwater photography with all of its required, specialized equipment played right into that side of his personality.
“It started when I used to play guitar in a rock band,” continues Dalbec. “I used to record with the band and tinker with our sound and what-not. And then for a time I got really into motorcycles… so all of the different gear that I use with my photography plays right into that, especially all of the housings and gear that I need to be in the water.”
It takes more than just a waterproof housing and a fancy camera, however, to photograph Lake Superior from within its frigid 39-degree water. It takes nerves.
In order to keep from freezing, Dalbec sports a thick neoprene wetsuit while taking photos from within the Lake. He has also found it necessary to wear a helmet to stay protected from Superior’s often rough and unpredictable swells.
Dalbec had been living close enough to the Two Harbor ore docks that he could look out of his bedroom window and “watch the boats come in” since 1989. That being said, it wasn’t until he discovered photography that he really started to get out and appreciate the Big Lake.
Photography, for Dalbec, has become the means through which he is able to explore the Lake; it has allowed him to see the Lake in a way that he had not been able to before.
To get his preferred shots of the Lake, Dalbec wakes up hours before sunrise, sometimes motoring across Lake Superior through the dark on his 16-foot boat to get to where the light will be at its best. At other times he will swim over a mile off shore to catch the sunrise and the waves in just the right spot.
“I get out most days in the year for sunrise,” says Dalbec, “which in the summer means I’m up by 3 a.m. I mean, sometimes I’ll get the suit on and walk out into the water and decide that the lighting isn’t right or the Lake isn’t what I’m looking for that day, so then I’ll take the camera inland and look elsewhere for my shots.”
“Honestly though,” continues Dalbec, “I love getting to know the Lake in this way. I just can’t wait for the next day to see what the sunrise is going to do.”
When asked what his favorite time of year to photograph the Lake is, Dalbec had a hard time making up his mind, describing every sunrise as a unique and wonderful experience.
“All of my little spots change throughout the year,” says Dalbec, “because in some ways it’s like I’m chasing the sun as it rises in different places with the changing seasons.”
“The fall is so beautiful with the colors and the cliffs,” reflects Dalbec, “but winter has the ice, and there is nothing like seeing the ice on the Lake in winter.”
One of Dalbec’s favorite experiences on Lake Superior is swimming through the caves in the winter.
“They’re always so full of icicles that are continually dropping and splashing all around me as I float,” Dalbec explains, “and I love how the caves are both over and under, above the water and below the water. It makes for some great photos.”
You can find Dalbec’s work on his website, christiandalbecphotography.com, or by appointment at his studio in Two Harbors.