Lake Superior: Edge Of Forever

The incredible expanse of the midwestern Great Lake is captured in the dramatic black-and-white imagery of Peter Scott Eide

This Article Features Photo Zoom

lake superior
“Serpent”—This shot was taken at sunrise under overcast skies on the shores of Ontario. It’s common to find uprooted trees from recent storms deposited by the waves of Lake Superior in large coves like this one.

Lake Superior is the most expansive freshwater lake in the world. Largest of the Great Lakes, its massive lake bed contains 10 percent of the world’s fresh surface water, and the shoreline itself is comprised of more than 2,700 miles. There are more than 200 rivers feeding in and out of the region, and some of the islands located within Lake Superior contain lakes themselves. The natural environment of Lake Superior is so immense that the opportunities it provides photographers for exploration can’t be understated.

Photographer Peter Scott Eide’s new book, Edge of Forever: Images of Lake Superior (Monolith Publications, 2008), is a beautiful black-and-white chronicle of the unequaled terrain of the area. A native Wisconsinite, Eide says that as a young boy he was awestruck by the uniqueness of the landscape, and even after he had grown up and left for school, the lake always was a vivid memory that he would come back to, time and time again.

“Lake Superior is carved straight from the Ice Age,” muses Eide, “and it’s still such a pristine landscape because the majority of the shoreline is either state- or province-owned, and a lot of it, especially over on the Canadian side, is completely untapped.

The clarity of the water, the scale of the landscape, the ruggedness and primitive aspects of it—these are all part of the adventure of camping along its shores. So when I moved back into the area, I started going back up there and began photographing, and it evolved itself into an ongoing passion, constantly digging a little deeper, and finding new things and new sections to shoot.

lake superior
“Wild World”—Ice shards built up over time compose this surreal landscape off the shores of Lake Superior along Northern Minnesota.

“It’s such a unique landscape that way,” Eide continues. “There are sections that have really distinctive features to them. In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, you have beautiful sandstone cliffs, with the constant erosion that plays with that, and long sand-filled shorelines that culminate with the Grand Sable Dunes. Further north, into Canada, the terrain goes from Michigan’s smooth sandstone to the jagged and rugged texture of volcanic rock, and also soaring granite cliffs, the highest elevation points along the entire Lake Superior shoreline. Minnesota’s north shore combines a little of all of these elements, and Wisconsin contains the Apostle Islands. It’s all different, which makes it a lot of fun. There is a lot of visual candy.”

Beneath The Surface

“I just love film,” Eide laughs when asked why he prefers black-and-white film for the lake. “I’ll always shoot film until I can’t get it anymore. If you’re a sculptor, you’re using metal or clay, and if you’re a painter, you’re using pigment and a brush. And for me, it’s about film and emulsion and exposure. I guess I’ll be one of those silly people that uses film until it’s no longer feasible. It’s a psychological thing.

“I have also shot in color,” he notes, “but for this particular subject, there is something so primitive, and black-and-white does it justice in that sense. Lake Superior is beautiful in color, as well, but sometimes the colors draw your eye more than the composition. Black-and-white levels everything down and also gives it that added drama that I think is present in the Lake Superior landscape.”

Shooting with film also makes Eide slow down to perfect a composition before he ever clicks the shutter. “I think digital is wonderful,” he says. “I have a lot of friends that have converted to digital, and it’s certainly, in the end, going to be the way photography will be, but you know what I really love about film? The one thing that I don’t want, and it would be hard with digital, is that I don’t want to see my image. I like the anticipation of not seeing it for a while. I like the challenge of capturing it. I don’t bracket a lot. I’ll take one or two shots, then go back and have it developed, and then not see it for a while. For me, I don’t want that much feedback. I want to be able to visualize what I want to capture, give it a run, and be done with it.”

This Article Features Photo Zoom

lake superior
“Exposed”—The spring of 2007 along Michigan’s Upper Peninsula brought historically low water levels that revealed hidden rocks and formations previously concealed by water.

Eide uses two primary systems, the Contax 645 medium-format SLR and Mamiya RZ67 Pro II 6×7-format SLR. He doesn’t prefer one to the other, though the Mamiya system is a bit smaller, so he’ll bring that on longer hikes. He has only six fixed-focal-length lenses, which provide him with all the range he needs. His favorites are the Zeiss 35mm, 45mm and 140mm glass, and the Mamiya 50mm.

Because he works so much with water, optical filters are an important part of Eide’s tool set. He uses a polarizer to reduce reflections on the lake’s surface. At times, he also uses a neutral-density filter for enhanced control over exposure, which can provide him with great effects like blurred water and more fluid cloudscapes. These effects do more than provide a more visually pleasing image; they provide Eide with a way to communicate the passage of time in a still photograph, an important aspect in his exploration of the lake and its long history.

Open Waters

On the majority of his expeditions to Lake Superior, Eide will take his time and circle the lake completely. He camps out in a variety of areas, hiking the shores to try to find new spots that he may not have come across before. Thanks to working with a dynamic and ever-changing subject, often he can capture entirely different images of the same section of lake.

“I try to keep an open mind when I approach a scene every time,” he says, “because I don’t want to be locked down into looking for one specific thing. The aspects of the lighting and the weather, overcast or sunny skies, rain—all of these elements will often play together to make some of the compositional choices for you. Lake Superior is constantly transforming itself, so you can, at times, shoot the same section of shore within hours and have a completely different subject to work with. Sometimes, if it has stormed, or even just with the waves, everything can get kind of rearranged.”

Eide enjoys the visual challenges inherent in such an immense body of water, too. He tries to keep moving until he finds something that strikes him at the moment, and he’ll work to get the exact framing that he wants, even if it means waiting until the conditions change.

lake superior
“Spirit Tree”—The photographer wanted gentle light to create a soft mood for this sacred Ojibwe prayer tree that has overlooked the northern shore along Minnesota for more than 300 years. He carefully planned this shot just as the sun crested the horizon.

“For me,” says Eide, “it’s a matter of composing the scene in an interesting way. With these kinds of large dimensions, it’s easy to let it be too open-ended. You might get lost or not have a real grounding in the piece. With that particular landscape, you have the beautiful shoreline, which is constantly giving you an anchor to work with compositionally. Then you’ve got the water and you’ve got the sky, which are both fluid. I’m trying to look for a balance that’s kind of circular for the eye, so that nothing falls out needlessly. It all should have a purpose when you look throughout the composition.

“Along with looking for the necessary visual elements within a scene to help sculpt an intriguing composition, I also search for an emotional connection, an atmosphere that helps to elevate the composition. When I find all of these elements combined within a scene, that is when I’ve found what I’m searching for.”

Endless Skies

The climate of such a diverse, northern environment also presents its own challenges. Summers can be hot and muggy, and they also bring mosquitoes, but it’s the winters that are the most difficult to shoot in. Of course, difficult conditions bring the most interesting images, so Eide often finds himself out in record temperatures. He notes that he’s a northern boy, so the intense lows don’t bother him, and dealing with the cold is worth it to him, as the weather can present an atmosphere so special that you can actually feel the cold in the images.

“In the winter, Lake Superior can create things overnight that are spectacular,” he says. “The water itself rarely freezes over because it’s too large of a body of water, and if there’s a bay area, for example, then it can fill with ice shards that float in, and you’ll have this unbelievable landscape of ice. Also, winter’s snowfall blankets the landscape, and if it hasn’t snowed for a few days, the waves crashing up against the deep, snow-covered shoreline begin to freeze over and form unique ice formations. Winter along Lake Superior is a wonderfully evolving visual canvas. I enjoy winter thoroughly.”

When preparing for shoots in the extreme environments, Eide makes sure that park rangers know when he’s trekking through such remote areas. He has slowly phased out winter camping after finding that his equipment would have difficulty from the cold in a relatively short amount of time. Now he tries to find a room within a doable hiking radius so that he can get back to warm up his equipment at night.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

lake superior lake superior
“Spring River”—During spring thaws along Minnesota’s northern shore, melting snow fills rivers and streams, creating powerful tributaries that empty into Lake Superior. “Grand Sable”—The Grand Sable Dunes sit along a five-mile stretch of shore, rising 300 feet above the waterline.

He brings at least two camera battery packs with him, packed underneath his clothes to keep them warm and fully charged, plus large, heavy garbage bags to place his camera equipment into once he returns from the freezing outdoors. He wraps his equipment inside the bags as airtight as possible to keep condensation from forming and ruining his equipment as it warms back to room temperature. “The hardest thing about shooting in the cold, though,” says Eide, “is that you can’t really work a camera with gloves on, even really thin ones, so you wind up shooting bare-handed.”

The Ghosts Of Time
Eide’s experiences shooting Lake Superior have proven to be almost meditative for him. “You’ve got to give a lot of credit to the lake and to Mother Nature,” he says. “There are times when you’re there and you know you’ve been given a gift. You know from standing out in the open spaces. Lake Superior is constantly moving, constantly pushing up on the shore as you’re working. You can’t capture sound in an image obviously, but there’s the pulse of the water, sliding over itself. It’s another element that adds to the moment and to the pleasure of shooting Lake Superior.”

Asked if he has any plans to return to the area now that the book is finished, Eide is exuberant about future work with Lake Superior. “Oh, yeah. There’s a strong connection for me out there. I really do feel very comfortable and connected to that landscape. The cool thing, too, is that there are sections that I still haven’t dug into, that I still haven’t gotten to by kayak, for instance. It’s kind of endless, really. There is always going to be some place that I haven’t gotten to yet.”

To see more of Peter Scott Eide’s photography, visit