Ice shanties at a popular spot in Sebewaing, Michigan.
An exhibition of Detroiter Amy Sacka’s photography on declining Great Lakes ice cover, “Last Ice,” will launch on Feb. 20 at The Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle. The exhibit will feature contributions from artists Scott Hocking, Michael McGillis and Valaurian Waller and will run through April 24.
Sacka began documenting ice fishing in 2016, in part as a way to get close to her father, a lifelong ice angler on Lake St. Clair. She is a Knight grant winner and a two-time National Geographic grantee, and her work was twice-published by National Geographic in 2019 & 2020.
Planet Detroit is a sponsor of the exhibit and chatted with Sacka about the insights she has gained from her photography about ice, culture and Metro Detroit.
Planet Detroit: What drew you as a photographer to the subject of ice fishing on the Great Lakes?
Amy Sacka: My father has been ice fishing on the Great Lakes for about 50 years. About five years ago, I decided to go out on the ice with him, mainly just to get to know him better. This is something that he absolutely loves. And when I was out on the ice. I would hear the same story repeated over and over and over, by him and by other people on the ice, which was that the ice seasons are getting shorter.
And now that I’ve been doing this work for four or five years, I’ve seen how each year, it seems that the ice season starts later and ends earlier. I have a personal connection to this work because of my dad. I’ve put my heart into it, because I’ve seen how the effects of climate can affect the people I love and the culture that I’m a part of.
You’ve spent a lot of time with your dad, but you’ve also driven around the entire Great Lakes for multiple winters in search of your subject. What were you trying to accomplish with those trips and what kind of images are you seeking?
Mainly for me, it’s been trying to actually get on the ice, because there hasn’t been any ice downstate until, say, February, whereas you used to be able to get out in maybe late December. This week was the first week that people have been able to get out onto Lake St. Clair. So, I have driven farther north in previous years, looking for ice.
What happened last year is we had another low ice year, and I didn’t find any — even up on Lake Superior in December and January. So that’s when my project expanded a bit, and I became curious as to how people are adapting to the fact that there’s no ice — what are people doing, how are businesses surviving to cope with the changes.
What have you learned from the people you have met and photographed who are a part of ice fishing culture, and what do the images you have captured mean for you?
I think there’s a through line, which is a deep reverence for nature. No matter who I’m talking to on the ice, you have to be a pretty hardy individual to go out there and spend time on the ice. It’s really cold, even if you’re in a heated shanty there’s a lot of preparation that you need to do, but people do it because they love it.
I’m primarily interested in photos of people. I’m interested in capturing that tenderness in them — it’s a combination of tenderness and strength. I have a desire to honor people, and to honor, who they are and their passions. I’m out there doing what I’m passionate about, and I’m usually photographing people who are doing what they’re passionate about. And I want that to translate in the photos.
But I’ll say as a side note, though, we have so many incredibly beautiful landscapes on the Great Lakes. I have been blown away by what I’ve seen, going around Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, up to Wisconsin and Lake Superior. What’s amazing is the quiet solitude — the hauntingly beautiful aspect of being alone. And in those kinds of areas, landscape photos capture that.
And I looked for that because I’m disturbed by what’s happening with climate, and I want people to feel that sort of eeriness — the mystery and the majesty of nature, not only the beauty of it but what can happen to it. How are you looking at it differently when you know the facts about how it’s changing? I think my photos capture that mood.
What do you think it is that draws people out on the ice?
What’s interesting for me about showing the photos is that there is a wide range of things that people do on the ice. So you have your fishing contingent, and what draws a lot of ice anglers to the ice is they’re just very interested in catching fish. And I also would hear from people that it’s the beauty — they want to be out there because there’s nothing like the sun rising or setting over the ice. And the feeling of solitude — I would hear men, especially, talk about the peace that they feel on the ice.
But then there’s another contingent of people in a lot of the small towns that surround the shorelines. A lot of their culture is built around the ice. So there’s a lot of activity that might surprise people — from festivals to polar bear dips to fireworks on the ice. I even saw someone riding a go-cart over the ice. In Wisconsin, I met a group of people who take their fat bikes on the ice.
As we see less and less ice and years where we don’t see any at all. How do you think it will affect the lives of the people that you’ve met through your travels?
I think it will greatly affect people. This year has been incredibly dramatic; the estimates are that the ice is going to reach a maximum of 30%. Normally it reaches 54%, and I think it wasn’t even 10% at the end of January.
Why this hits me at my core is that I hear my dad talking about the fact that he cannot get out there, and I met people who snowmobile who would snowmobile on ice, and I know businesses who build their whole business model on the snowmobilers that come out or the ice anglers that come out, and there’s a loss, I think there’s a feeling of great loss.
Now, maybe people will adapt in different ways and start doing different things, but I think that when you feel like you’re losing a part of your identity, I think that’s really tough, even from a cultural collective experience, that’s really challenging.
Tell us a little bit about this upcoming exhibit. How did this come about? How did you put it together, and what can people expect?
This is truly my vision of how, when people look at this work, how I am hoping they will feel, and what I’m trying to convey, which is a haunting beauty. I sort of want people to feel that sense of loss. Many of the photos are printed on metal, there’s both a beautiful kind of shimmering quality to them but there’s also a little bit of a reflection. So you can kind of see yourself in the photo. And I’m taking things to a deeper level here, but if you really want to contemplate this, it’s like, how are you being affected by this, what are you doing yourself that affects this and what can you do to change this?
I’m also excited about the collaborative nature of this exhibit. We have Scott Hocking and Michael McGillis, who are building an ice shanty, and they’re putting a creative spin on it so it will be a very interesting work of art. And that will be in conversation with my photos. What I mean by that is, it’s literally going to be facing my photos, so I want people to kind of look at each of those pieces of art and how they work together.
And then another thing that I’m really excited about is Valaurian Waller. She’s a colleague who called me in the summer. Her father is a fisherman and she did a whole series on the Detroit Riverfront. Her work is included in the exhibit because our stories are parallel to each other and are in conversation because we both have these deep family ties to the water.
And another really amazing collaboration we have is with the Sportsman’s Haven Museum in Sebewaing. During my travels, I met this man Doug Deming, who has been collecting historic fishing memorabilia. He lives on Lake Huron. At one time he and his wife ran a fishing lodge. All the stuff they’ve collected, they’ve turned into a museum, and we brought one of his historic fishing shanties used in the 1920s to the museum.
There used to be fishing villages where people would sleep on the ice and have communities on the ice. This is how thick the ice was back then. And Doug has myriad pieces that reflect that culture from way back then, so we have historic fishing spears and nets and pictures.
I just love that we’re bringing together all of these people, and it just goes to show you how many people enjoy the ice. And then, of course, we wanted to have a local presence to all of this, so we’re partnering with the Dossin Museum on Belle Isle, Darkroom Detroit and Planet Detroit — thank you for supporting us.
What’s next for your photography?
Well, I always like to take a break from being on the ice. I’d like for more people to see this exhibit, so I am hoping to take it elsewhere, perhaps up north or to different places on the Great Lakes. And I’m doing this project on what it means to be an American, following the footsteps of Robert Frank and documenting the everyday lives of Americans and how they view freedom, all across the nation.
This may sound kind of cliche but on or off the ice, wherever we stand, there are spaces that we can all stand in together. There was one man who I met who I think our political persuasions were pretty different, but I started talking to him about Polish cooking because his grandmother’s Polish, and I’m Polish and suddenly we’re standing in this space together where nothing else really mattered. So, that’s what I’ve discovered — that when it comes to the personal, you can find those points of connection.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Valaurian Waller as Valarian Carter. We regret the error.