GRAND MARAIS — Considering how often a just-peeking sunrise, usually over Lake Superior, is captured in Bryan Hansel’s photographs, you’d just assume he was a morning person.
“Oh no, not at all. It’s terrible,’’ Hansel said of his almost constant task of getting up early to capture the best images, the best light, the best composition for his photographs.
Yet Hansel is out there — in the cold, as dark inches toward daylight, often right in his adopted little city on the shore — looking for something new, something different, something special to capture.
He usually succeeds.
“It was a lousy morning today ... I did get one good image, though,’’ Hansel said over a noontime cup of coffee on a gray North Shore day in December.
In just over 15 years on the North Shore, Hansel has become one of the most respected and sought-after outdoor photographers in the Northland, specializing in natural landscapes and night skies that look as much like paintings as photos. He loves Lake Superior, and he likes winter best for its lighting and shades. His images sell to locals and tourists alike, folks looking to capture in a wall hanging that special feeling they have for the big lake, the shore, the Northwoods.
When he’s not taking photos, Hansel's other job is as a teacher, instructor of mostly on-the-road photography classes in national parks and other natural areas across the U.S. He still offers weekend courses through the North House Folk School here each year and in other close-by spots. And he offers one-on-one photography tutorials. In 2019 his workshops will take him from Death Valley in the west to the Great Smoky Mountains in the east. He’s on the road a lot — 100 days each year — and he’s put 67,000 miles on his SUV in just two years. It’s sometimes grueling travel, but he still loves finding new areas to teach his craft.
“Some of the people come because it’s me, people from Minnesota, the Midwest, who follow my work. But a lot, especially those with more intermediate or advanced photography skills, come because they want to be in that specific location, that national park. … They want someone to put them in the right place at the right time,’’ Hansel said.
Photography as art
Hansel’s photographs are simple yet stunning. Many center around Lake Superior, especially waves and often rocks. He finds new beauty in rocks that many of us hop over without a second glance on our way to the water's edge.
“I’m a big foreground shooter. I’m always looking for something interesting at my feet,’’ Hansel said. “That pretty sunrise or sunset is really secondary. I have to have a great shot in the foreground.”
That could be ice on a rock or rocks, a tiny inlet, a small puddle or even a clump of brown grass surrounded by the steel gray of basalt rock and Lake Superior water. Hansel, who lives with his family on 5 acres in the woods west of town, returns often to the same places — the Grand Marais harbor, Artist’s Point, Cascade Beach — but says he finds something new each time.
Hansel has become a national expert on the use of filters in landscape photography. And he’s not afraid to use extra lighting to make the composition work better.
“I’m not trying to reflect reality. I don’t think any photograph can do that. I’m trying to create something,’’ he said.
Hansel stresses three simple rules for a successful photo — simplicity, flow and relationship. He often uses wide-angle, 16-35 mm lenses that emphasize subjects in the foreground more, making them stand out — look much bigger than reality — even against the backdrop of a giant patch of Lake Superior and the endless horizon of a North Shore sunrise.
“But there’s a danger that you get too much’’ subject matter in the frame, he noted of wide-angle lenses. “You have to be careful not to include extra stuff.”
With the shore in the foreground, Hansel’s photographs often then draw a viewer's eyes to a skyline, a sunrise, clouds and color on the horizon.
Hansel’s most popular photos have been of Lake Superior storms, namely waves crashing into the Grand Marais harbor lighthouse, or crashing onto shore at Shovel Point or other North Shore locations. But his very best selling print wasn’t a natural landscape at all. I was a cityscape of Duluth's Bentleyville holiday light display in Bayfront Festival Park on the harbor.
Hansel was driving along Skyline Parkway looking for places to shoot from when he noticed two ships, back-to-back, entering the harbor and about to go under the Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge, with the Bentleyville lights in the foreground. It was a stunning scene, and Hansel raced to find an unobstructed view to capture it from. He had to settle for a place where some trees send branches up into the photo. But that only seems to add to the image.
“I put that up on the site, and the orders’’ started to flow in, Hansel said, noting he hadn't expected the image to be that popular.
From high school darkroom to dark skies
Hansel was born in England, the son of an on-duty U.S. Air Force airman, but then grew up in Dubuque, Iowa. It was in high school photography class in Dubuque that Hansel fell in love with cameras and photography. He learned with film, in an old-fashioned darkoom, then transitioned to digital.
“My high school photography teacher was really good. After I took all the elective photo courses they offered, he came up with some more for me,’’ Hansel said.
But in college he focused on writing, holding back photography as a hobby.
“I wanted to be the great American novelist. But I was no Hemingway. I wasn’t a writer,’’ he confessed.
After college he took a borrowed 35 mm camera on a hiking trip from Maine to Georgia on the Appalachian Trail. That’s when he discovered his attraction to, and talent for, landscape photography.
Hansel went back to Iowa, struck up a relationship with his future wife and settled into outdoor retail sales, working for Scheels sporting goods. He became an avid biker, sea-kayaker and mountain climber while continuing photography for fun.
When the couple decided they wanted to move to a more woodsy, wild location, they each wrote down a list of potential places.
“I had done a lot of Boundary Waters paddling and camping and loved this area, so I had Grand Marais as No.3 on my list,’’ Hansel recalls the story. “I don’t think it was on her list at all… But she got a teaching job offer in Grand Marais so that’s where we went.”
It’s been home ever since. Hansel started out making ends meet by teaching sea kayaking courses and using his camera skills for real estate photography. But nearly every day he was honing his landscape skills. Eventually, as people started commenting on and buying his photos, outdoor photography became his full-time job.
“I’ve always been an outdoor person. … paddling, biking, climbing. I knew that I wanted to be in outdoors, and this is the perfect job,’’ he said.
Slowly, Lake Superior became his favorite place and his favorite subject.
“When I got here I assumed the Boundary Waters, the woods and lakes, was going to be my focus,’’ Hansel said of his photography. “But eventually I realized that the lake (Superior) was this incredible draw … that’s when I fell in love with the lake. The lake became the focus.”
Hansel has used the lake to win multiple awards and to get photos published in more than 100 magazines and websites, including National Geographic, Outdoor Photographer, Lake Superior Magazine, National Park Traveler, Ocean Paddler, Canoeroots, Adventure Kayak, Canoe and Kayak Magazine and Backpacker Magazine.
Hansel also has become an expert at night-sky shooting, with now famous shots of the Aurora Borealis as well as the Milky Way, now one of Hansel's favorite subjects. He recently was a featured speaker/presenter at the inaugural Dark Sky Festival in Grand Marais.
Konnie LeMay, editor of Lake Superior Magazine, said she has been involved in workshops with Hansel where he offers freely to share his skills with beginners.
“He’s generous in working with amateur photographers,’’ LeMay said. “Bryan is passionate not just about how he shoots but about what he shoots. He capably can shoot anything, but chooses to concentrate on landscapes and lakescapes because that is where his heart lies.”
LeMay, who also has hired Hansel for multiple assignments for the magazine, noted that Hansel has developed not just an affection for the lake and shore but is active in making sure they remain unspoiled.
“His photography expresses his love and concern for our wild spaces and delicate environments,’’ LeMay said. “He’s one of a handful of photographers with whom we work who can literally translate emotions into their images. The joy of continued discovery comes out in Bryan’s work -- he may have shot the same scenic area a dozen or more times, but every image speaks to a new way of seeing or of something freshly seen.”
He is constantly evaluating his own work, improving his style, Hansel said, and he believes his latest photos are better than his earlier images. He’s sure his best work is still ahead of him.
“My style is always fluid. My work is constantly changing and evolving… I think I keep getting better,’’ he said. “I started thinking of my photos as a blank canvass. But instead of using paint, my paint is the landscape.”