A northern Minnesota photographer finds his calling—and a friend and therapist, of sorts—in Lake Superior, whose waves, ripples and endless shifts of light beckon him every day. 

By Robin Pfeifer
April 07, 2021

AMID SUMMER CROWDS, fall storms and winter ice, Christian Dalbec is out there, wading into cold water before sunrise. Since 2015, he has been creating ethereal images of Lake Superior. Shared on Instagram (@christiandalbecphotography) and sold as prints and an annual calendar, they capture the infinite moods of the world's largest freshwater lake. Interview with Robin Pfeifer. 

Christian Dalbec Photography-Lake Superior
Framed in Fall
| Credit: Christian Dalbec Photography

 RP How did photographing the lake become your full-time job?

CD I love it so much I wouldn't call it a job. It's my life. I couldn't say that before when I worked as a carpenter. It was dirty and unhealthy, and I drank to escape. I found myself in a downward spiral that got faster and faster. In 2011, I got a wake-up call that I needed a new direction. I found the camera and the lake that's been in my backyard all my life—those things became my AA. I used to hate getting up for sunrise. Now, I can't wait to see every one.

RP What, exactly, motivates you to plunge into icy water every morning?

CD I get this feeling when I'm out there that people who buy my work feel too. I capture the experience of spending time at the lake, but through a new perspective. Instead of standing alone on shore, the lake is there, looking back at you. 

Christian Dalbec Photography-Lake Superior
Bottoms Up
| Credit: Christian Dalbec Photography

 RP Your photo shoots are anything but typical. What's your process?

CD My cameras, my wet suits, all my gear gets prepped the night before. I set a timer for 4 a.m. to warm up my Toyota Tundra custom camper that serves as my changing unit. I head straight to Split Rock Lighthouse, north of Two Harbors, and scout the water from the beach. Once I understand the conditions, gauge the light, I'll suit up and start swimming 20 minutes before sunrise. Good light lasts for about an hour. Once I'm out, I text my wife to let her know I'm safe, drink some coffee and head home to start editing. 

Christian Dalbec
Christian Dalbec
| Credit: Christian Dalbec Photography

RP What does a bad day look like?

CD The surfers at Stoney Point near Duluth taught me how to read the waves and weather patterns and how to forecast the lake. Most importantly, they taught me where not to be and when not to go out. Once, I swam into 10-foot waves thinking, "I'm going to get that curl!" I got pounded and almost drowned. When I finally washed up on shore, I lost a fin, but luckily, I still had my camera. The lake taught me a lesson in respect that day. 

RP Do you go in with a plan or hope to discover something new?

CD Most of the time I have an idea in my head, but my plans become new adventures just by looking around and seeing what's really happening in the water. One day in February, I wasn't going to go in because there wasn't much of a sunrise. But I forced myself in and found lots of different ice underwater. I used to always chase the big curls on the shore breaks. But then I started paying attention to little forms, like the way the water hits and collides. The wave is so unpredictable and it's never going to happen again. You have to see what's in front of you, fire away—and bam! You've captured a sea monster.

Christian Dalbec Photography-Lake Superior
Hook and Curl
| Credit: Christian Dalbec Photography

RP What's your favorite image?

CD Framed in Fall, the lighthouse captured inside a golden curl, is my favorite (top of article). I remember looking at it in the back of the camera right after I shot it and immediately I knew, it's the one I've been aiming for since I first got in the water. It's perfect. But I like to say, my favorite is always the next one I'm about to shoot.

RP You seem to have a very special relationship with the lake.

CD My wife is jealous because I call Lake Superior her. "She was good today. She knew I was there." Sometimes, I just like to be at her level and not take any pictures. I feel a spiritual connection that just makes me say, "Wow … thank you." 

Christian Dalbec Photography Lake Superior
Lost Marbles
| Credit: Christian Dalbec Photography

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.