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Photography provided by Craig Blacklock

Photographer Craig Blacklock has captured some of Minnesota’s most picturesque natural wonders, from Lake Superior to the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers. The latter are the subject of his most recent book as well a current Mill City Museum exhibit (through June 24). We asked Blacklock about his inspiration, his most memorable photo shoot and his next big adventure.

You’re known for your Lake Superior photography. What draws you back to this great lake time and time again?

There are many things that draw me back to photographing Lake Superior, beginning with the fact that some of my happiest childhood memories were created on the North Shore. Because I spent so much time relating to the lake and shore, this landscape became my native visual language.

As an artist, I like the idea of my images being open to individual interpretation, with each viewer seeing and getting something different from a photograph. I refer to these as “toys for the imagination.” The images are, of course, literal in that they are photographs of a specific place at a specific moment. But unlike a photograph of a deer, for instance, Superior’s subject matter — rock, water, ice, horizon line — can also be seen metaphorically. The deer remains a deer pretty much no matter how it is photographed, while the surface of a lake leading to a horizon line can elicit an almost infinite array of emotional responses.

I think all artists strive to create works that reveal things to the viewer, that unlock feelings, emotions and hidden truths and that can alleviate stress and facilitate healing. Superior itself produces these things within me, and I hope my images of it will bring those same benefits to those who view my photographs.

What prompted you to create your recent book, St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers: The Enduring Gift? 

My hands were badly burned in the fall of 2014, requiring skin grafts and half a year of recovery before I could work again. I was told that for at least two more years my hands would be very sensitive to cold. A friend suggested I put a project about Lake Superior, with its cold water, on hold and instead do a book on the warmer waters of the St. Croix River.

I live in the northwest corner of the St. Croix Watershed and have paddled the Moose Horn River and sections of the Kettle River (tributaries of the St. Croix) many times, but I did not know much about the rest of the watershed. I did an exploratory paddle in July 2015 and realized there was much more diversity in both topography and forest types than I had envisioned as well as a tremendous amount of wildlife. There was certainly ample subject matter for a book.

I then learned from the St. Croix River Association that 2018 would be the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, cosponsored by then senators Walter Mondale and Gaylord Nelson, which created our National Scenic Riverways. The Namekagon and St. Croix were the only two of the first eight rivers named to become part of our National Park System. When the folks from the SCRA arranged for Vice President Mondale to write an essay for the book, everything fell into place.

My goal was to recreate for viewers, as closely as I could, the experiences I had while paddling on and hiking along the rivers. The project is somewhat cinematic in that it has broad establishing landscape photographs that give context to the many details of wildflowers, birds and animals that are constantly around you. Unlike my work on Superior, this was about the deer and the scarlet tanagers and the rivers’ rapids and the fog over the water — all the very specific things that form the memories of a river trip.

However, the river itself becomes a metaphor for the thousands of environmental issues that face our planet. Every day I get dozens of requests for funding or the signing of a petition relating to specific threats to species or wild places. While we certainly need to address each of these, we must realize that simply protecting a place like the St. Croix by making it a national park offers no protection from external threats created by overpopulation, such as runoff pollution and climate change. We must not only be good river stewards but also learn to be good global citizens. Every decision we make, from what car we drive to how many children we have, must be weighed by this question: If every one of the 7.6 billion people on Earth made the same decision, what would the world be like in 50 or 100 or 1,000 years’ time?

Most of your work is centered around Minnesota nature, but one of your books features slot canyon photography. What drew you to Page, Arizona?

I’m a senior fellow at the Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of Minnesota. For some time, I’ve worked with the center to create videos for use in nursing homes and hospitals, and for mindfulness-based stress relief. I went to the slot canyons of Page, Arizona, with the idea of creating one of these videos from still images made in the canyons.

That year I made several videos outside our region in order to give the collection a broader geographic appeal. When I was there, I discovered that even though the slot canyons are one of the most photographed spots on the planet, I could not find a book on the subject. It is a difficult subject to photograph, and I knew that my technical skills in combining both exposure and focus from many captures would give me an edge on any competition, so I published a small book of images created from about a week of photographing the canyons.

What’s one of your most memorable photo shoots?

The most memorable photographic outing from my recent work was an autumn day paddling the St. Croix River near Osceola, Wisconsin. It was at the peak of fall color, and the morning was absolutely calm with a heavy fog drifting over the river. A setting full moon appeared at times when the fog broke. That magic lasted almost until noon. I had the river totally to myself, allowing me to make images from the water and also stop occasionally along the shoreline. Several images from that morning wound up in the St. Croix book.

You teach a weeklong hands-on class about photographing the Apostle Islands. Can you tell us more about that?

I began teaching photography workshops in 1982, partly as a result of not getting the instruction I felt professional photographers needed while I was in college. I wanted to give photographers the real-life technical and artistic skills needed to make photographs people would want to purchase.

I’ve taught at many venues across the country and now limit most of my weeklong workshops to the Madeline Island School of the Arts in the Apostle Islands. I created a book, Apostle Islands, about the area and have gotten to know Madeline Island well. I like teaching where I know I can take participants to specific locations that have good photographic potential. On Madeline, I know where to be at which hour of the day and in what weather conditions. My classes are a mix of technical photography, Photoshop and art instruction all rolled into one. My current emphasis is on creating images that mimic our human visual memory. Often these are created from several original captures combined into one final photograph.

What’s your next big adventure?

Next year I will be returning to photographing Lake Superior. I created a large book called Lake Superior Images that came out in 1993, photographed almost exclusively with a four-by-five-inch view camera. I will return to the same concept of showcasing the lake’s wild shoreline but with the new tools of digital capture and a drone — tools that allow me to create photographs I never could have dreamed of creating in the 1980s. I know the lake well from thousands of miles of kayaking and hundreds of days of photographing. I’m already envisioning the possibilities.

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