Featured Artist - Christian Dalbec
If our last featured artist was the single most requested interview we've ever gotten, today's guest has always been a very close second. Christian Dalbec, the "original water photographer from inside Lake Superior," is as much an icon of the Minnesota North Shore as he is an enigma to most who have heard of him – the man who had the gaul and gusto to boldly go where few others dare and bring his camera along for the adventure... whatever is he thinking?!! 😮😁 No matter the season, Christian can be found swimming in the depths of the grandest Great Lake on a daily basis, rigorously editing and generously sharing his gems both on social media and his professional website. His work has been featured in galleries, magazines, the Star Tribune and now the prestigious UNTC blog. 😉 (Yay!) So gather round as the man himself regales you with the tale of how he came to be the prolific professional he is today.
For those who have not yet had the great pleasure of reading the wonderful piece that the Star Tribune did on you last year, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into photography in the first place?
I found photography after wrapping up a 27 year drinking marathon. I got into trouble multiple times and then in 2011, after the 4th DUI, something had to change. I needed a fresh view of life. I sold my dirt bike, picked up a camera thinking I could keep my mind busy with that and I started a daily routine of walking Two Harbors point. I was looking for fresh views of Lake Superior.
The article mentions that you were born in Minneapolis, adopted by parents in Two Harbors and spent your life living with Lake Superior in your back yard, but never paid much attention to it. So what drew you to the water?
It’s not so much that I never noticed Lake Superior, because it was always there. I played along the shores and the river mouth where the original Betty’s Pies sat (not to mention the treats we always bought there). In my early teens, I enjoyed fishing along the shores and in boats, including many trips to Isle Royal. When I was about 15/ 16 I started scuba diving with a local shop, I even started working there. So Looking back at that history, it gave me a foundation to put my camera in a housing, mixing what I know now with what I had previously learned. But this wouldn’t have come together without a fan on my Facebook page sending me a link to a video of a pro water photographer, I’ll mention that later.
And if it didn’t mean much to you growing up in Two Harbors, what does Lake Superior mean to you now?
It always had meaning, I just wasn’t aware for a long period of time. I grew up playing next to it, fearing it (from severe warnings from my dad), but now it means everything to me. The lake is home, it’s healing for me, it’s where I go to church.
Before we get too far into the weeds I feel the need to ask the same question that we asked George Ilstrup regarding the physical act of getting into Lake Superior during winter months… and I mean this in the most respectful way possible, but… are you crazy? 😜
Haha Before 2015 I would have said yes, but I think I enjoy what I do so much now, and with the wetsuits available, I hardly think about the cold. I live in the moment of a new day being born. In other words, I’m protected well and I’m into my work to where cold isn’t a factor unless the lake is frozen over.
What question do you get asked most often regarding what you do and what is the answer?
I’d say it’s a tie between, “Were you swimming for this picture?” or “How did you get this shot?” I usually reply with a selfie of me in my swim gear and say, “I’m in the lake.”
Walk us through a normal morning for you? What kind of preparation do you do to get into the water? What safety precautions?
It all starts the night before. I make sure everything is dried out from the previous swim, I usually have everything ready to pack up and go. I leave early, in the summer around 3:30am. I make my way up the shore to my spots and if the weather looks good and conditions look good, I have about an hour swim. Then I enjoy my coffee on the way back home, thinking about the next step ‘The Edit’.
My safety precautions are my experience, some very scary. But it is important to know what you’re doing out there and have respect for the lake.
How long have you been doing this? And how long did it take for you to consider yourself a professional photographer?
I’ve been a photographer for 8 years, swimming photographer since 2015. I’m still wondering when I will feel like a professional at this.
As a professional artist, do you ever feel pressure to shoot what sells or do you try to shoot for variety and enjoyment?
I shoot what I love and I think that is what people see in my art. I didn’t know this was going to happen. No one else had tried it, till I jumped in the Lake.
What makes Split Rock such a special place?
Probably that I was never ever going to photograph there. In the beginning, when I picked up the camera, I decided I wasn’t going to shoot Split Rock, it was so over shot. Now look what I’ve done. Haha I broke my promise, early on. In fact right away I went to Split Rock for some night photography and was instantly hooked by the scenery. It’s just always been where my vehicle seems to steer itself and put itself in park.
How many shots do you take on average per day? How many do you then go through and edit on average?
Wow, Well it all the depends on the light that morning. If it’s a horrible light, and I still went in maybe only a handful of shots. But my normal, sun was up and waves rolling in, I save anywhere from 200-700 then I’ll start getting worried about how much time I’ll spend on the computer. But by that time the sun is climbing in the sky and getting kind of bright. So it’s coffee time.
What are the coldest temps you’ve been in? And what about the scariest place or situation you’ve have found yourself?
I’ve been swimming with water freezing on me, I remember one day when my photographer friend John Gregor and I were at Hollow Rock, it was 27°f below zero on shore and I was swimming in 32°f water and dropping, it was freezing on my equipment, making it almost impossible to get the shot. But I got the shot and the hardest part was the walk back to the van, even though it was less that 100 yards. The suit was freezing up and stiffening while I walked, I had to lay down in the van to let the suit thaw before I could even unzip. But the funny part is, I was about 60° warmer in the lake than John was on shore.
Definitely the scariest moment was at Stony Point with the surfers. That was early in my swimming, about December 2015, I headed out to the reef through some ginormous shore break. As I was passing one of the surfers, he asked what I was doing. I said “I’m gonna get that curl” I saw him shake his head, saying “No” but I thought I knew what I was doing. So I swam right for the curl on a 10ft day. Soon as I got to the spot, there come the 3 sisters, all over 10ft. Not even knowing about duck diving yet, I pointed head first and floated towards them. I quickly learned what the washing machine is, the inside of a giant wave turning round and round. It decides when the cycle is over. Not you. I needed air, wondering what I was doing in this situation, as I popped up through the surface to get my breath of air, I saw the next wave, exactly the same, bringing me down for a repeat. This time it ripped one of my fins away and left me with one side to swim, I still had the big camera in my right hand. With only one arm and one leg, then comes the third sister, right down on top, with only a small breath of air. After popping up that time I was wondering if anyone would help (I realized I had to get in to shore on my own, instead of risking someone else’s life) as I was washed to shore and made it. Through the shore break and on the rock, there I sat to take off my one fin and my head hung low as I headed towards the vehicle, wondering if the ticket I bought for Hawaii was a good idea. I wasn’t sure I would ever go back in the Lake again.
What sort of limitations do you set for yourself? How long can you hold your breath?
It took awhile to learn how to hold my breath, I’m still learning and have a long ways to go. But I can be underwater for almost a minute, my goal is 2-3 minutes in cold water. In Hawaii, it’s warmer water and with a regular practice, a lot of the guys can hold their breath for 4 minutes.
You are not the first person we’ve featured who has found photography to be a way of overcoming demons in their storied past. Both Derek Warner and Northwoods Murphy have shared very openly that picking up a camera gave them a path away from some very dark places with drugs and alcohol. What do you think it is about photography that has that ability, or at least what do you think it has been for you specifically?
I think photography took me away from the boredom of being stuck inside. It took my mind down a more creative path, which is usually always outside somewhere, near water. It refocused my daily activity, refocused my life. It’s not the only thing that got me help, but photography has become like my AA. It’s what worked for me.
The Star Trib article describes the transition as almost a single event, putting down the glass and picking up the camera, like flipping a switch, and then shortly thereafter walking into the water. How long did the transition actually take?
The photography came pretty quick, because I started my walk around Two Harbors Point with my camera while I was still in the program. Basically it took a couple years before it felt like a true transition.
I put in the work and did some digging... you have posted over 4,000 times on Instagram, the earliest being from December 15, 2013. I see watermarks popping up before the end of that year, yet for all intents and purposes, the account was primarily social. Music and selfie pics begin to fade from IG in late 2014, in June of 2015 waves starting to pop into your feed and October 2015 looks like about the time you really started to define your voice as an artist. At what point in that journey did you realize IG could be a valuable business tool?
I was pretty late to Instagram, I didn’t think it was going to take off. I knew I had an account, but I didn’t really start using it for photography till that 2015 mark. I realized that Instagram was the place to be for artists.
What is your secret for catching that fleeting instant a wave crosses your path or perfectly frames Split Rock Lighthouse? Are you shooting in bursts? And how quick is your shutter speed typically going off at?
I guess it’s pretty similar to wildlife photography, you never know when the eagle is going to jump from the branch or when the duck is going to take flight from the pond, so you have to learn to anticipate. The camera is always on continuous, sometimes I shoot singles, sometimes I hold it down, it’s never the same.
What is your secret to making waves that look like glass sculptures?
I never know when those days are going to come out. It’s basically good timing and having the right light. But I’m happy that those days do show up now and then.
What’s been your favorite non-Minnesota place to shoot your iconic in the water photography?
Pictured Rocks, MI definitely. And I’ll let Hawaii’s North Shore come in a close second.
What is your favorite season personally as a MN native? Is it the same answer as your favorite season being a MN photographer?
I’d say I prefer summer because I’m up before birds even get up. And I hardly ever see anyone during my morning. Which I definitely like.
What’s the biggest print you’ve ever sold?
Well, other than a few billboards, I’m honored to say I have a 10ft by 15ft metal print of ‘Hook n’ Curl’ in Gallery Coffee Co. in Munising, MI.
Winter in MN last year was epically cold, and this year has been relatively mild in comparison… which imagery is "better for business"?
Probably last year, because it was such an extreme winter. Even though it kept me out of the water and crabby for a couple months, it got everyone out and exploring an extremely cool ice covered shoreline. But I’m glad I got to swim all through this winter, because I love it!
Tell us a little about about the woman known as “following the photographer” (her article on the anatomy of a wave was extremely interesting)
That’s my beautiful wife, Kara Dalbec. I met her at a coffee shop in Two Harbors. She’s the other half of my team and makes the business side of this art run a lot smoother. I’m really proud of the blog she has of behind the scenes, I get a lot of feedback from my fans that love to follow along from her perspective too.
We know from the Star Trib article that you once had ambitions of being a rock star or at least enjoyed rocking out in some capacity… what instruments do you play and what type of music would one have caught you playing back in the day?
I play guitar, that was my main instrument along with vocals. But I also love drums and bass and mandolin and just recently (the last few years) I’ve learned piano, my way. I don’t read music, I learn by ear. The music you would have caught me playing was definitely 80s rock, being that it was happening right in front of me. Some of my favorites would have been KISS, Judas Priest, Iron Maidan, RATT, along with classic rock, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix and on and on.
Now I’ve got a couple quick questions from Instagram:
– "How many cameras have you drowned?"
I’ve drowned 1 system, a full frame Nikon and Lens. At the time, it set me back $5200. But before I even got into this, I found a very good insurance plan that helps cover everything from drowned cameras to drowned drones.
– “Do you prefer tea or coffee?"
– And finally… “What is your favorite board game?"
And that concludes the Instagram audience participation portion of our programming. Now back to our regularly scheduled questions…
Do you happen to have a favorite photo you’ve ever taken?
I have many I like, but I have yet to take my favorite photo. I hope to always be looking for it, the rest of my life.
Who are your heroes? Or who have been some of the biggest influences in your life thus far? (Photography or otherwise)
I’d have to say my parents, they’ve been there and got me through the worst and the best. Lots of friends, too many to name. Professionally, Ray Collins for being the link from that Facebook fan that got me in the water. He is an Australian water photographer that battled his own demons and injuries that landed him in water with his photography that got him where he is today, and I look up to him and always have. John Gregor of Coldsnap Photography, he has been there from the beginning, even before. He has been a huge inspiration in my life, always there for support.
Any bucket shots on your list?
Yeah, there’s lots of them. There is a wave in Tahiti I want to see, A wave in Fuji, many spots in the great lakes, including Isle Royal (this time with my camera). But I think my favorite ‘bucket’ shot is the kind on my adventures, when I never quite know where I’m headed. In other words, I love a shot that came out of nowhere and surprises me.
What advice do you have for those just starting out in photography? Under water? With ambitions to generate a professional income?
Creativity goes a long way in this profession, being original (if it can be accomplished) is probably key. Technically, it’s important to get out there and shoot with people that you admire and research all you can. Underwater, my first advice would be very good insurance and only the best equipment will keep you from using those policies. Water safety is number 1, take a scuba class and go from there. Adding photography can be tricky if not downright impossible, everything I know is from years of experience and being creative, finding all these spots. As far as a professional income, you have to be a salesman, an accountant, a tax man, a weatherman, oh yeah, and being a photographer helps too. Just about everything and just about anything comes into play when business is involved. Don’t quit your day job, because the “benefits” suck. haha
This one comes from our previous featured guest George Ilstrup who would like to know … "What would make you valuable in an end of the world scenario?”
I might be valuable because I would swim underwater and hold my breath as the world blew up, I’d be one of the only ones left. But I don’t think I want to be all alone. So I don’t know.
And (once we disclosed that you would be the one following George) he also wanted to know... "I’m curious what his scariest/most dangerous moment as Split Rock was?"
Early on, when I was over-stepping my boundaries with the lake, I was tossed around and ripped my suit open many times against the super sharp rocks along the shoreline.
What one question would you ask our next featured guest? (Anything you like… may or may not be a photographer and the more ridiculous the better)
Pick-up camper or a tow-behind ?
Time to pay it forward... who else would you like to see featured on this blog?
John Keefover of Keefography
Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you for including me in your blog, this was fun!
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hi! I am in awe of you & your talent. I am also so proud that I know your mom & dad. I feel they are so very special!!! you too!!! Your talent is great & I feel very honored to have met you. Keep up the great work & fun you show in your photos. Congrats to you & your wife. Blessings always too!!!!
Really enjoyed reading your interview. So talented, humble, and real. The world needs more people like Christian. Thank you!
What a great interview, and all the pictures…..Christian is an artist, professional….thank you