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Bryan Hansel transforms North Shore scenes into artistic palette

The Milky Way has become one of Bryan Hansel's favorite night sky subjects. Hansel recently was a featured speaker/artist at the Dark Sky Festival in his hometown of Grand Marais. (courtesy / Bryan Hansel)1 / 3
Bryan Hansel2 / 3
Bryan Hansel had to bushwhack into this waterfall in a remote area of Cook County. There is no trail to this waterfall and Hansel said he's never seen another photograph of it. To preserve the wildness of the stream Hansel declined to reveal the exact location. (courtesy / Bryan Hansel)3 / 3

GRAND MARAIS — Considering how often a just-peeking sunrise is captured in Bryan Hansel's photographs, usually over Lake Superior, 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 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.

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."

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 bestselling 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.

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.

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.

"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."