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A land worth saving and the photographer who does it

Marjorie Nilssen admits she felt a little star struck when she met Craig Blacklock.

"Like a 13-year-old meeting a rock star," said Nilssen, laughing.

But then Nilssen, an art and photography instructor at Ridgewater College in Willmar, can easily be excused. She has admired Blacklock's photography since his works first came to her attention in 1984.

She is hardly alone.

Blacklock has won national attention for his books and photographs depicting the wild lands of the Lake Superior region in Minnesota. He's gained international attention as well, especially following the 2004 publication of The Lake Superior Nudes.

Nilssen has been working since last June to make possible an exhibit of his works on the Willmar campus -- well aware that Blacklock is able only to do one, maybe two small exhibits like this a year.

And it happened: Blacklock rushed on to campus Nov. 15 and dropped off a sampling of his works with the promise of returning to host a public book signing and session on digital photography at the campus on Dec. 13.

Until then, anyone willing to make the trip to the Ridgewater campus in Willmar during business hours has the opportunity to view the works of an artist described as "one of the premier landscape photographers in the United States."

All this comes from a guy who is at heart having fun. "My work is other peoples' vacations," laughed Blacklock when reached recently by phone at his home in Moose Lake, in northern Minnesota.

Blacklock, 54, has been exploring and photographing the great outdoors since he was 6 or 7 years old. He learned the art of nature photography at the side of his father, Les, who was recognized as one of Minnesota's leading outdoor photographers and a voice for conservation until his death from Parkinson's disease in 1995.

Craig Blacklock produced some of his earliest works with his father, traveling to scenic wild lands from the Everglades to Yosemite National Park.

He also came to state and national attention through his photography work with his first wife, Nadine. Together they produced eight books focused on outdoor photography until her tragic 1998 death in an automobile crash.

He has since remarried. Honey Blacklock served as the model for the black and white nude photographs that contrast the human form with the rock and ice landscape of the North Shore in The Lake Superior Nudes.

Blacklock said Lake Superior has always been his passion, but he didn't make the lake and the lands around it his primary focus until he had produced the highly acclaimed book "Minnesota Wild" with his father in 1984. He said he thought he'd make Lake Superior his personal project "for one or two years."

He has circumnavigated its 1,200 miles by kayak and has continued to explore its geologically diverse environment ever since. His kayak trip produced "The Lake Superior Images," which won a Minnesota Book Award.

His decision to focus on the Lake Superior region reflects his love for the land, an appreciation for its surprising diversity, and a professional drive to do the best. "You do best with things you know best," he said. "To me, (Lake Superior) is my native language."

It's also his cause. A conservationist like his father, Blacklock hopes that his photographs help others see the importance and value of protecting the beauty of Minnesota's remaining wilderness areas.

"We need to create stakeholders in protecting it," he said

Nilssen said his photographs of the North Country are so stunning -- and seem so perfect -- that she has to ask: "Are they composed or is it all serendipity?"

For the record, it's all serendipity.

Blacklock said he may push a branch to get the camera in the right place, but he never alters the scene by so much as moving a leaf.

He said his most rewarding work to date has been The Lake Superior Nudes. It has helped bring him to international attention, and represents an evolution of his landscape photography. "It's not about what the lake looks like, but what it means to me," he said.

Currently he is working on a project to create still and movie images of Minnesota wild lands for the University of Minnesota Hospitals. They are intended to be used as therapy for patients coping with major illness and treatment.

He also has future plans to complete three more books on Lake Superior. He'd like to focus separately on the Canadian side of the lake, the Michigan shoreline and the Apostle Islands.

Craig Blacklock will be on the Willmar campus of Ridgewater College on Dec. 13. He will speak on nature photography from 1 to 4 p.m. and host a book signing event from 5 to 8 p.m. The public is welcome.