Lake Superior Harbor #3, Grand Marais, Minnesota, 2017

It's not just the photograph that I'm after. It's also the experience of spending a day of my life (or longer) in one particular place on earth, getting to know everything about it: The feel of the wind, the sound of the waves, and the smell of the land. Afterward, the photograph becomes a record of a day well spent, and a reminder to me of that unique spot, unlike any other. If I'm lucky, I'll return years later to re-photograph, and catch up on what's changed over time in that place, creating a new photograph in the process.

In the summer of 2017, I returned to Grand Marais, Minnesota, to photograph the harbor on Lake Superior. Climbing around on the breakwater, I set up my 4×5 camera and tripod on the steep rocks and began photographing in the evening. In my excitement, I bent over to grab some gear, and my glasses flew off my face and skittered across the stone. I heard a splash and knew that the glasses had sunk to the dark depths of Lake Superior. And these were my good ones, with no scratches.

Later that night, I pointed my flashlight at the bottom but couldn't see much. The water of Lake Superior is crystal clear, but I had no idea how deep it was here. I thought maybe, just maybe, I saw something. The next morning, I came back, but the soft reflection of the dawn sky made it impossible to see the bottom. Still, I had a feeling. So, at high noon I returned one last time to the spot, hung my head over the rock and peered down. And there they were, sitting on the bottom of Lake Superior, exactly where the glasses fallen in the night before.

I've lived near Lake Superior for the past 25 years, and I've only gone in once. The water is so cold that it could kill you in a matter of minutes on the wrong day. But this was summer, and I could see my glasses. So, I stripped down to swim trunks and climbed into the frigid water. It was about 5 feet deep. Using my toes, I grabbed the glasses, pulled them out, and watched the lenses fog up as they made contact with the warm air. A group of pedestrians stopped to watch and comment, wondering if I might be crazy.

The icy water took my breath away, but I decided to go back under and swim around for a few minutes while I had the chance. After 14 years of photographing this spot, I never thought for a moment that one day I'd go swimming here… in the foreground of my picture.

Location: Grand Marais, Minnesota
Photograph Date: 2017
Medium: Chromogenic Print
Edition: 200

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About the Photographer

David Bowman

Most National Geographic photographers travel to far-flung places, like Bali or Timbuktu, in search of images. But David Bowman, who was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin, finds inspiration in his own backyard, shooting the vast, open spaces and lakes of his native Midwest. His subtle, dreamlike images, often of water, have won numerous awards, including an International Photography Award and an American Photography Award. His latest project is photographing the Great Lakes.

Speaking from his home in Minneapolis, David explains how his mission is to do justice to the place he lives in, how being in the right place at the right time with the right equipment is crucial, and how returning with his daughter to a spot in Florida where he had taken a memorable photograph gave the image a special meaning.

Q & A

You only recently started working for National Geographic. What does it mean for your career—and your life? Were you intimidated?

I was honored. My parents had National Geographic through my whole childhood and I've been a lifelong subscriber. But I didn't pursue National Geographic. They actually invited me! [Laughs] A picture of mine of the state fair in Minnesota won first place in a national photography competition. It was seen by a National Geographic editor and they asked me to submit it for consideration for an opening spread. It took [the magazine] months to decide whether or not they were going to use the picture. But eventually they contacted me to say that they were going to run it—as the opening spread of the 125th anniversary issue! I had worked really hard. I had planted the seed. But I had only dreamed that something that great might happen.

What inspires you in your work, David?

The geography and landscape of where I'm from is a deep-seated inspiration. My backyard. I have spent my whole life in the Midwest and my images are informed by my life experience here. Landscapes in the Midwest are very subtle. That’s the challenge of being a photographer here. How do I make a photograph that captures the meaning and importance of this place, a photo that is worthy of this place?

National Geographic Image Collection Interview With David Bowman By Simon Worrall

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