GRAND PORTAGE, Minn. – It was 17 degrees below zero on a February night in 2014 when Brian Peterson, a photographer with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, stumbled from a cabin near Grand Portage wearing only long underwear, a sweatshirt and boots.

The Duluth native ventured out to the shore of Lake Superior to check the batteries of his camera, which he had set to record the aurora borealis. That's when he noticed a lunar halo forming around the setting crescent moon.

He hustled back to the cabin, grabbed another camera and tripod-and more clothes. He returned to the lake and captured one of the signature photos for his new book "Minnesota: State of Wonders."

The book, which features Peterson's photos and text by Star Tribune travel editor Kerri Westenberg, is a four-season photographic journey to each of the state's natural biomes-the north woods, glacial bog country, prairies and Mississippi River blufflands.

The northern lights never appeared that night, Peterson said, but the lunar halo was an "unexpected gift." The photo remains Peterson's favorite from his year-long, border-to-border quest to document Minnesota's natural wonders in the glossy coffee-table book.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

'Dream assignment'

The book grew from a collection of photos that had initially appeared in the Star Tribune, where Peterson has worked as a staff photographer for the past 28 years. When the newspaper published the photos, readers began asking if they could purchase prints or a book of the collected works, so Peterson secured rights to his photos from the newspaper and found a publisher.

The newspaper project had originated from conversations between Peterson and Westenberg about showcasing the state's natural assets.

"For me, as a photographer, that was a dream assignment," said Peterson, 56, whose family has both a hunting shack and a cabin north of Duluth.

He and Westenberg independently spent part of each season of the year in a different corner of the state. They started in the Arrowhead region during the frigid and deep-snow winter of 2013-14.

"It was a good old-fashioned winter, which was good for me," Peterson said.

He planned his shooting in each region with a single goal in mind.

"I wanted to find that one image that would represent that geographic corner of the state-and also that it would be a surprise," he said.

Freedom to shoot

He spent about four weeks in the field shooting each region and an equal amount of time doing research and setting up trips, he said. He had to know when the northern lights were likely to be out, when different prairie plants were likely to be blooming and where he could find a family with a sauna on the North Shore. Most of the images were made in 2014.

"(The Star Tribune) was really good about giving me time to go whenever I needed it," Peterson said. "A lot of it was weather- or seasonally-related."

Once on the road, he would seek a defining image of a region, then look for complementary photos to further bear witness to the beauty of the area. He worked with an array of lenses, from ultra-wide-angles to long telephotos-and also with drones and video cameras. His images ranged from expansive prairie landscapes in the southwest to the detail of feathery frost on a North Shore window pane. Drone shots offered dramatic perspectives of the Big Bog State Recreation Area near Waskish and an ice-climber high on the frozen falls of the Baptism River.

Peterson shot the book's cover photo-the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park-at night, using the light from a single LED flashlight to illuminate the foreground while a 30-second time exposure allowed him to capture the Milky Way overhead.

"Unfortunately," Peterson said, "that small LED attracted every mosquito in the area."

Immersing himself

Such sacrifices were common during the year of shooting. To portray a single interrupted fern in fiddlehead stage, Peterson estimated he spent three hours lying on the ground, slithering from one fern to another until he had his shot.

He considers such a pursuit enjoyable, not a hardship.

"People would be really bored if they came with me because it's so painstaking and time-consuming," Peterson said. "But I just enjoy being out there."

He counts Ely's Jim Brandenburg's images for National Geographic magazine among those that have had a significant influence on him.

"What I've learned from Jim is that the only way to do it is to spend time and immerse yourself in it," Peterson said. "It's a singular pursuit."

At no time in the shooting was that more evident than the morning Peterson photographed a spider web beneath a dock on Lake Winona. The image is a remarkable close-up in which the strands of the web appear to be gossamer cables connecting globes of water droplets. Encapsulated within each droplet is the refracted lakeshore. The photo could almost pass for an illustration of a molecule in some chemistry textbook.

"Nature's DNA," Peterson calls it. "I spent at least four hours shooting that. I've shot many spider webs and had never gotten that close. I kept pushing myself to get closer and closer. It's probably the best example in the book of where I pushed myself as a photographer beyond what I was happy with."

Northern Minnesota roots

Having grown up in Northeastern Minnesota, Peterson was naturally drawn back to his roots for part of the project. As a child, he had spent a lot of time at the shack north of Duluth with his brother and grandfather. He was a Boy Scout and had spent time paddling in the Boundary Waters.

He discovered photography in college and decided to pursue a career in photojournalism. After working at a couple of Minnesota newspapers, Peterson left the state for what he called his "dream job" at the Colorado Springs (Colo.) Sun in 1982.

"I figured I could trade 10,000 lakes for 1,000 peaks," he writes in his introduction to "Minnesota: State of Wonders." "But it became clear fairly quickly that Minnesota was special."

He had to leave northern Minnesota to understand that.

"I never really appreciated it as much as when I left," Peterson said. "It's in my bones. I cannot not spend time in northern Minnesota."

He returned to Minnesota, first to the St. Paul Pioneer Press and in 1987 to the Star Tribune. Through his lenses, he has covered the fall of the Soviet Union, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Winter Olympics and more.

"Doing world-class natural history photography on assignment like Brian has done here is not for the weak of heart," Brandenburg writes in his foreword to "State of Wonders." "It is one thing to take a camera out on a weekend when the mood strikes and click away for fun. Occasionally a fine image is produced. It's quite another to produce on command, over and over again."

Peterson relishes the entire process, no matter what's required to get an image he wants.

"Taking pictures is an excuse to get out there yourself," he said. "But it's great to come back and share it with others. What we see as photographers, how we describe it-we're teaching other people how to see without a camera."

For more information on "Minnesota: State of Wonders," or to order copies, visit stateofwonders.com.