Menominee Pier Lighthead, Michigan, 2017

I’m originally from Chicago, on the western shore of Lake Michigan. I grew up studying maps, and always wondered what it might be like on the other side of the lake. So in the summer of 2017, I circumnavigated Lake Michigan by car, and found myself in Northern Michigan. That’s where I discovered the freshly-painted Menominee Pier Lighthead, and its vivid red & white tower contrasted against the deepening blue water and sky.

What I love about driving around the Great Lakes is the feeling of passing through history. Centuries before roads and cars, the lakes were the primary trade route, transporting people and goods from the East Coast to the center of North America. In this particular place, the lakes served as a major port for the lumber trade during the 19th century. Looking out across the water, it’s hard to imagine that on October 8, 1871, the worst recorded forest fire in North American history raged near this spot, destroying millions of dollars worth of property and timberland, and taking between 1,200 and 2,400 lives. With temperatures rising above 2,000º F, a 'tornado of fire' crossed the lake near Menominee, traveling 20 miles over open water until it reached the opposite side, igniting the shores of Door County, Wisconsin.

Location: Menominee, Michigan
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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