Hermantown paralegal turns passion for nature into second career as 'free range' photographer
While many of us are eagerly anticipating spring, late winter, when the ice forms, is one of Dawn LaPointe's favorite times to capture images of Lake Superior.
DULUTH — Dawn LaPointe calls herself a “free range” photographer, and it means pretty much what it sounds like.
“It means I go wherever I want,” said LaPointe, of Hermantown.
Free range is different from freelance, she adds. “It’s just immersing myself in nature rather than going on specific assignments to specific places.”
Free range and also “organic,” LaPointe quips, meaning there’s “no artificial color or additives” in her photos. What you see is what she saw.
LaPointe doesn't necessarily plan her exact photos, and she loves surprises. But the effort — and the results — are far from haphazard. She seems to have a knack for going to just the right place at just the right time to capture stunning photos of nature in the raw, from pounding Lake Superior waves, to a tiny flower blossom, to a serene Boundary Waters paddler at sunset.
“It’s being mindful, watching the weather forecast, knowing what the temperature and the sky conditions will be … knowing when there will be some clouds to help paint some color on the scene,” she said. “Then I go prepared.”
Take, for example, one of LaPointe’s many shots of ice formations along the winter shores of Lake Superior in and around Duluth. It’s not just the rising sun, which many of us would focus the photo on. She’s also keenly aware that what’s in the foreground of the scene is also important.
Before the sun rises over the horizon, “I think about how the light might paint that object in the foreground, maybe that plate of ice,” she said, adding that she tries to imagine “how the viewer's eye will travel through the photograph.”
“The sunrise paints the scene, makes it more interesting,” she noted. “But there’s a lot more going on.”
At this point in March, while many of us may be eagerly anticipating spring, later winter, when the ice forms, is one of LaPointe’s favorite times of year to be around Lake Superior taking photographs.
“There’s a different feel along the shore in winter,” she noted. “I have kind of a quiet respect for Lake Superior … a humbling feeling of respect being along the lake in dramatic ice or waves.”
One photo LaPointe posted on Facebook earlier this winter was taken at dawn, the sun just above the horizon where lake meets land, along the Minnesota Point sand dunes on Lake Superior in Duluth. She managed to capture mesmerizing patterns of dune grass, sand, snow, ice and sky all in one frame. When asked to explain the photo’s allure, she paused.
“There’s a path of color and light that runs through the photo, up through the sand dunes to the sunburst,” she explained. “It’s a journey through the photo.”
Falling in love with water and shore
LaPointe, 55, grew up in Prairie du Chien, in southwestern Wisconsin, just two blocks from the Mississippi River. She was drawn to water even then, she noted, but not necessarily to take photos.
Her first camera was a red Polaroid, a gift from her parents, which shot out the film and the photo developed before your eyes.
Her first 35 mm camera was a Canon Snappy 50, she recalls, which used film. She liked taking photos, but it wasn’t her life’s ambition at the time.
LaPointe graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she focused on political science and music, playing saxophone. She never studied photography, but her political science classes were a good prep for her current day job as a paralegal for a Duluth company.
After college she spent three years in Newport, Rhode Island, where she said she lived “like a tourist,” taking in everything the region’s seascapes and back roads had to offer.
“That's where I developed a real love of water and the shore,” she said, noting she would sit for hours, in sometimes awful weather, watching the Atlantic Ocean waves roll onto shore.
She also loved the White Mountains in nearby New Hampshire. “That’s when I really started taking serious nature photographs,” she noted. “I was all over New England.”
In 1996, she came to Duluth and stayed, following her then-husband to his new job.
“I fell in love with this place immediately, especially Lake Superior, but also the wilderness of the Boundary Waters,” LaPointe said of the Northland.
To this day, LaPointe is drawn to the big lake’s waterfront for her photography, often Brighton Beach — where the ice tends to form and morph and move — but also the sand and ice dunes of Minnesota Point and up along the North Shore rocks.
“The waterfront here is so accessible. … And the ice conditions change so frequently that it’s never the same twice,” she noted. “So I keep going back.”
In 2009, she met Gary Fiedler, a Duluth-based photographer who encouraged her to dive deeper into digital photography. (The two later married and have since divorced, but are still friends.)
“That’s when I began shooting with more intention,” she noted, and when the couple set up her Radiant Spirit Gallery online. “I consider myself a part-time professional photographer now.”
The gallery's name "reflects the intention to capture and convey the radiant spirit of nature through photography, videography and articles."
In 2014, LaPointe’s photo of a paddler in a canoe at sunset in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was chosen to hang in the Smithsonian Institute's exhibit marking the 50th anniversary of the federal Wilderness Act.
“That gave us a lot more eyes on our work, a lot of media interest, and that’s when things started to take off for my photography,” LaPointe noted.
Her photos have been used in many magazines, including Backpacker, The Boundary Waters Journal, Canoe & Kayak, Canoeroots, Nature's Best Photography, Northern Wilds and Lake Superior Magazine. Last year, some of her best North Shore photography hung in exhibit in the Split Rock Lighthouse State Park visitor's center.
Despite the quality of her still photos, however, LaPointe may be best known for a video she captured. In February 2016, LaPointe was making one of her many trips to the Duluth waterfront when she recorded video of shards of broken Lake Superior ice being pushed onto shore by wind and waves, capturing motion and sound as they tumbled and jumbled together. The mesmerizing video, “Lake Superior Ice Stacking,” went viral — viewed millions of times — and appeared on TV shows and websites worldwide. It was also a highly honored video in the 2016 Windland Smith Rice Awards.
It was no accident that LaPointe was in that place at that time. In fact, she went to the frozen waterfront expecting to see some sort of incredible ice formation. On that Saturday, a day off from her day job, she spent eight hours on the waterfront in below-zero temperatures.
As usual, she was prepared with two tripods: one for still photography cameras and one for video.
“I decide when I see what’s happening which one (stills or videos) will best convey the scene at that moment,” she noted.
On that day, video won.
Several of her video clips have been sold for use in nature documentaries worldwide. But, while LaPointe has become an accomplished videographer, she says video editing can be very time-consuming for someone with a full-time job who would rather spend her free time outdoors.
For still photos, she tends to do her “editing” more in the field, using her lenses as tools, and less on the computer. “I keep my editing very simple and basic,” LaPointe noted.
That’s part of being a free range photographer, she said.
“I try to convey a natural scene,” she said. “Nature is the artist, really, and I’m just its messenger.”
For 2023 LaPointe is embarking on a self-inspired project, using both videography and photography, that she hopes will convey her love for nature in winter in the Northland and encourage others to develop that same love.
“To inspire folks to layer up and enjoy winters in our region,'' she said. "And appreciate the beauty in this challenging season."
See more Radiant Spirit
To see more of Dawn LaPointe’s work, order her Minnspirations calendars or order prints, go to her online gallery at radiantspiritgallery.com or follow her on Instagram or Facebook . You can also see and buy her photographs at The Frame Corner & Gallery in downtown Duluth, the Two Loons Gallery in Duluth’s Lincoln Park business district and at Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely.