For the May 2011 issue of Living on the Lake Magazine, writer Laurie Lenten interviewed me about my work. I thought she did a masterful job of telling the complicated story of what I do, and how it all began. Since so many people ask me how I got started, I thought I'd reprint Laurie's article here.
* (c)2011 Journal Community Publishing Group, reproduced with permission.
Northwoods Photographer Captures The World We Don't See
By Laurie Lenten
As a child, Eric Engbretson would sit for hours and stare into his father’s aquariums, imagining what it would be like to be in there, under the water, swimming about with the tropical fish. A child’s fantasy, to be sure.
Until that summer day in 1993, says Eric, when he was sitting on his porch just looking at the small lake on which he lives in Florence and, “For some reason, I noticed how clear the water was.” Whether an epiphany sparked by the natural surroundings or a simple act of fate, Eric soon found himself at a local chain store buying a swim mask and fins. “It was a complete disaster,” he remembers of the buy-on-the-fly equipment, but once in the water his attentions turned elsewhere and he says, “I couldn’t believe the clarity and the beauty.”
Ill-fitting equipment aside, Eric was hooked. “I started going into the water more and more, and thought, ‘I need to get photos of this,’” he says, recalling when the seed of a new career option was planted in an off-handed sort of way. “I bought a $20 underwater camera and it was another total disaster. The camera leaked, the photos were awful, but I thought to myself, ‘You know what, with the proper equipment, I bet this could work.’”
It was a long shot, considering Eric had no formal training in either photography or underwater diving. At the time, he was working in radio broadcasting, which was a far cry from working anywhere on, near, or in the water, let alone under it. “I wasn’t happy with my job. Things in radio had changed so much from when I first got my start in the late ‘70s and I just didn’t like it very much anymore. I wanted to do something different, but I didn’t know what it was I wanted to do,” he says.
Armed with a copy of Writer’s Digest, Eric says it intrigued him to discover that lots of magazines paid money for photos. It intrigued him even more when he started looking at the fishing magazines he was prone to read and discovered that many of them expressed an interest in buying underwater photographs.
“That’s when the light went on and I realized that I could be the guy to take the photos for these guys. So I bought better equipment and with that better equipment, I got better awful photos,” he says.
Time, a photographer’s best friend, is what he needed, which is what led him to leave the radio industry altogether in 1997. But economic reality set in quickly, making it clear that man cannot live on selling a few underwater fish photos here and there alone. “I took a job as a night desk clerk in a hotel, but after a few years of that, I realized I needed more time for taking photos.”
In 2007, Eric quit his part-time job and has made his living ever since then with underwater photography alone. "I was convinced I could do it and I was right. The more time you have to devote to taking photos, the better you get. To make a living at this, you have to do it full-time.”
These days, Eric spends about seven months out of the year underwater in the lakes and rivers of the upper Midwest, immersed in the business of photographing fish in their natural environment. “In the early days I was just snorkeling in shallow water and taking photos, and I realized that I needed to get deeper,” he says. “But I was told that you couldn’t become a certified diver if you couldn’t swim. I couldn’t swim, I still can’t.”
Being a tenacious do-it-yourselfer, Eric set about looking for other ways to dive deeper and longer without being certified. “I found a guy in Florida that sells what’s called the Super Snorkel, which is basically a Honda engine that sits on a truck tire inner tube. The engine powers a compressor that pumps air 30, 60, 90 feet down. It’s also very safe compared to earlier models of this type. I can stay underwater for five hours on a quart of gas.”
Eric still uses his Super Snorkel, even though today he is a certified diver complete with the tools of his trade–wet suit, weights and a regulator. “It allows me more freedom to move about without using heavy air tanks,” he says. Most of the work Eric does is at depths of between 12 and 17 feet because ambient surface light is so important to capturing the stunning photos he takes.
Also important to his work are ample doses of patience because, as Eric says, fish in the wild (or any fish for that matter) don’t exactly strike a pose, and a working knowledge of lakes and rivers. “I have certain lakes where I know the fish are that I need. I don’t work on assignment, I take stock photographs that publications and people buy from me, so I am free to shoot any number of types of fish.”
Moving freely about the waters of northern and northwestern Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula, lower Michigan and Door County, as well as southern waters in the Ozarks, Eric captures fish in their seasons and the habitats in which they live. His work is up close and personal, revealing a watery underworld that is rarely seen. “Most of a lake, like a tree, is hidden. We only see the surface,” says Eric.
Under that surface, however, is a world teeming with life. It was that world that Eric was asked to share with visitors in April at this year’s Wisconsin Lakes Convention in Green Bay. Titled “A Fish Eye View of Lake Life,” Eric’s slide presentation focused on how people can protect and enhance lake habitat. “I have never been to a lakes convention in Wisconsin before and I felt like a fish out of water. I’m just a guy with a camera. I just document what I see.”
And Eric says what he’s seeing are lakes in flux. “I never see the same thing twice. There are a lot of changes going on in our lakes. Some are clearer, some are not. There are a lot of natural cycles, which means things are constantly different.”
Working from his own experience and reading what he needs to know as he goes along, Eric considers the lakes of Vilas and Oneida counties his ‘office’ Monday through Friday, April through October. Some of his favorites include Two Sisters, Hasbrook, Big Carr and Dorothy. “Two Sisters’ clarity improves as the year goes on, while Sugar Camp Lake is crystal clear, but devoid of structure. Arbor Vitae, on the other hand, is filled with fish, but is very unclear. So clarity doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with finding fish,” he says.
But find them he does and, says Eric, a lot of the shots he gets are a matter of pure luck. “You don’t have all day to consider composition. You can’t get a fish to pose, so you just get the shot the best you can. Pictures, however, never do justice to what you actually see down there. It is truly amazing.”
Eric’s photos are proof enough of that. For more information on Eric’s work, log onto underwaterfishphotos.com.
Laurie Lenten is a freelance writer living in Rhinelander.