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Photographer captures ghosts of Lake Erie

Lakes are often portrayed as calm and serene, but Dave Sanford knows better. He's based in London, Ontario, and grew up about a half-hour from Lake Erie. He's been a professional photographer for 20 years, and uses his images to reveal a more ominous and eerie side of the Great Lakes.

We wanted to know more about his connection to the Great Lakes. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for clarity.

Crosley Bros.
Credit Dave Sandford
Crosley Bros.

How would you explain your unique style?

A lot of people tell me when they see my images of the Great Lakes it brings them back to the old-school paintings from hundreds of years ago of ships, and crazy waves, and that tone that's in the images. They have a little bit of a darker tone, more of a moody feel, I guess.

What is it that you see in the lakes that you're trying to reveal?

The sun melts into the waves of Lake Erie
Credit Dave Sandford
The sun melts into the waves of Lake Erie

Ever since I was young I've been fascinated with all the myths and the legends that surround Lake Erie, whether it's the Lake Erie monster or the Storm Hag or the Witch of November across the Great Lakes. I have a cousin that has a cottage down at Turkey Point on Lake Erie and he's always had books and articles about plane crashes and ships sinking; he had a map on his cottage wall of the hundreds -- thousands, actually -- of shipwrecks around Lake Erie.

There have been thousands of lives lost on Lake Erie and one of the things that I started to notice when I was shooting the lake on a regular basis is the things that you see within the waves. I often see these faces and figures within the waves. People can call me crazy but I almost swear the lake is haunted. There are a lot of trapped souls in the lake and it's like I'm seeing the faces of these souls in images that I'm taking. It's almost like the lake is teasing these souls and they're almost escaping from the lake, but at the last second the lake is reaching up and grabbing them and pulling them back down to the depths.

Dave Sandford stands in the water to capture waves on Lake Erie.
Credit David Hinton
Dave Sandford stands in the water to capture waves on Lake Erie.

Tell me about your most recent shoot.

It started out kind of average but the light was gorgeous, and it probably ended up being the greatest day I've ever had out on Lake Erie. It was mainly overcast throughout the day so that provided these ever-changing lighting conditions, almost like Mother Nature was doing professional lighting for me. She was opening up holes in the sky and lighting areas that I was shooting. It was as perfect as I could ever have imagined, and I was kind of giddy about it.

Do you have any advice that you'd give people who wanted to shoot the Great Lakes?

Number one: Be safe. Have the utmost respect for the water, because no matter what, the water is always going to win. Even if you're shooting from shore, always be aware of your surroundings. Keep an eye out, because the water can surge up pretty quickly and sneak up on you. If you're shooting somewhere where there's a pier or a drop off, be careful, because a lot of people don't expect rogue waves. Especially at this time of the year, you're not going to last long in that water.

Be confident, but not over-confident. You don't want to be cocky because when you start to get over-confident, that's when you can find yourself in trouble.

The Gales of November
Dave Sandford /
The Gales of November
Opposing Forces
Dave Sandford /
Opposing Forces
Sea Witch
Dave Sandford /
Sea Witch
Lake of the Cat
Dave Sandford /
Lake of the Cat
South Bay Bessie
Dave Sandford /
South Bay Bessie
The Kraken
Dave Sandford /
The Kraken

Copyright 2017 Great Lakes Today

Veronica Volk is the Great Lakes Reporter/Producer for WXXI News, exploring environmental and economic issues, water, and wildlife throughout the region for radio, television, and the web.
Veronica Volk
Veronica Volk is the Great Lakes Reporter/Producer for WXXI News, exploring environmental and economic issues, water, and wildlife throughout the region for radio, television, and the web.