Pete Lerro is a photographer living in Pennsylvania. When he’s not on assignment, he organizes photo workshops across the country. With Pete’s unique workshops, guests can expect special access, private photo sessions, and a night of professional photography seminars. Check his website at www.lerrophotography.com for more information on his workshops, and to see many of his photos of lighthouses and other subjects.
The following is an entry in Pete’s blog for December 29, 2020:
Split Rock Lighthouse, Lake Superior, Minnesota
To mark the anniversary of the sinking of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior, the Split Rock Lighthouse illuminates its 3rd order Fresnel lens for about two hours every year. On average, the lighthouse only turns its light on two to three times a year, making it a rare occurrence. I’ve always wanted to attend this event, but personal scheduling never allowed. This year, however, I made it a point to go.
In years past, I had tried to schedule a photo shoot and get the lens lit for just our photo group but, unfortunately, it was never able to be arranged. The new director at the museum, however, is much more open to such photo shoots and I wanted to make sure that I introduced myself. The Edmund Fitzgerald anniversary lighting was the perfect time to do it.
After some negotiations, I was able to arrange a special lighting of the lens after the public lighting was finished, allowing interior shots of the illuminated lens, among other shots.
The weather forecast for November 10th was constantly changing, with a storm predicted that would bring 4-8 inches of snow at some point that evening. Normally, hundreds of people gather on the beach for the event, but with Covid, that was down to just a couple dozen. At 4:30 p.m., the lens was turned on and began spinning and flashing its light over the lake. Blue hour made for some nice shots, but once it got darker, the cliff and all the surrounding landscape turned to black. The Fresnel lens is so bright that you can’t expose enough to capture the landscape without blowing out the light. With the heavy cloud cover, stars weren’t present either. The moon really needed to be up to help illuminate the landscape. That’s something that’s obviously out of anyone’s control.
At 7:00 p.m., the Fresnel lens was turned off and the public dispersed. At about the same time, the snowstorm started to move in and the ground began to get covered. At 8:15 p.m., we turned the light back on, but turned off the rotating motor so the lens was stationary; the lighthouse is not an official aid to navigation, so this wasn’t an issue. During our time inside, I shot interior pictures of the lens, as well as the original clockwork mechanism that turns the lens. The snow was really coming down hard at that point and the beam of light shooting out from the lantern room was very impressive.
With about one hour of shooting time left, I made my way down the cliffs to shoot on the beach. Between the falling snow and atmosphere, the once-pitch-black landscape now was dramatically illuminated by the giant beam of light emanating from the lighthouse. In 20 years of shooting lighthouses at nighttime, this was certainly the most dramatic beam of light I had ever seen. With the lens stationary, it made capturing the beam very easy and produced some of my favorite night shots of all time.
At 10:00 p.m., it was all over and I carefully began my trip back home. In all, I only spent about 40 hours in Minnesota and managed to photograph five other lighthouses in the Duluth area, all while social distancing.
In 2021, I hope to arrange a weekend photo shoot at the Split Rock Lighthouse so a group can capture images of the 3rd order Fresnel lens in action. If you’re interested in photographing this amazing place with the lens turned on just for us, keep an eye out for the announcement and make sure you’re signed up for our newsletter.
An interview with Pete Lerro will be featured in an upcoming episode of the USLHS podcast “Light Hearted.”
Jeremy D’Entremont is the author of more than 20 books and hundreds of articles on lighthouses and maritime history. He is the president and historian for the American Lighthouse Foundation and founder of Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses, and he has lectured and narrated cruises throughout the Northeast and in other regions. He is also the producer and host of the U.S. Lighthouse Society podcast, “Light Hearted.” He can be emailed at Jeremy@uslhs.org