Journalist and photographer Dylan Silver slips into a 9 mm-thick wetsuit, booties and gloves before diving into Lake Tahoe on a winter day, underwater camera in hand.
Below the surface it’s quiet — no boats churning up the water, decreasing the lake’s famous clarity, or other swimmers disturbing his solitude. The water temperature is around 40 degrees, after all, and there’s snow in the mountains.
“I’ve been swimming and snorkeling in Lake Tahoe since I was eight when my family lived in Gardnerville,” said Silver. “My mom would bring me up, and I would motor around on my little rubber raft, jump in and swim down into the depths.”
When Silver discovered an interest in photography from his work as a journalist, the idea of combining that with his passion for swimming in the lake seemed like a natural next step.
“I knew the underwater scenery was down there. After following the photography scene in Lake Tahoe, I noticed that nobody was taking pictures of it,” explained Silver.
“And then combined with that, I saw a lot of the scientists and researchers were using cameras to document the changes in the lake. I thought this would be a good record to have.”
For the past two and a half years, Silver has been capturing Lake Tahoe’s waters in an ongoing series entitled “Tahoe Clarity.”
Donning various snorkel gear and scuba diving equipment, Silver has set out to document the entire circumference of the lake from the sandy bottom to the waves churning on the surface.
“I do mostly surface work, which is photography in that top 30 or so feet. When you go deeper than that, the gear starts to get a lot more complicated,” said Silver, who swims and shoots at least a few times a month, year-round.
His photographs typically fall into three styles: shots taken completely underwater, a split frame showing above and below the surface, and shots of cascading waves.
“Taking pictures of water is unlike other photography because it’s very serendipitous. The water moves so quickly and in ways that you can’t capture just by looking at it,” explained Silver.
“So with a camera you can capture moments of movement that you don’t even realize are happening.”
All around the lake, Silver has favorite spots to shoot for different reasons — Secret Cove on the East Shore for its shallow teal waters and D.L. Bliss State Park for its exceptional clarity, for example.
“You can see 70 or 80 feet some days,” said Silver.
“And in Emerald Bay there are things like the sunken forest, which is where a landslide slid a bunch of old growth Ponderosa pines into the lake and now they are standing on end like they are a forest,” he explained. “It’s just a really surreal landscape.”
Underwater, Silver encounters unique rock formations, sand patterns, fish — like mackinaw and Tahoe suckers — and hundreds of pairs of sunglasses.
“I have a whole collection,” he laughed. “I plan to do something with those, but I don’t know what quite yet.”
A lack of people dropping said sunglasses in the water is part of the reason Silver prefers swimming and shooting during the colder months.
“I feel so lucky in the winter because it feels like I have the lake to myself. In the summer it’s trickier. If you’re diving, you have to be concerned about boats, and you can actually hear boats underwater, so it’s a little bit distracting,” explained Silver.
And the summer water activity affects the clarity of the water, too.
“It’s hard if you don’t swim as much as I do to really see the changes, but anybody who went in during the winter and went in on a typical summer day, you could see it. It’s a night and day difference in terms of how far you can see in the water.”
As his project title suggests, clarity is a big part of what makes Lake Tahoe unique — and preserving that clarity is a big motivator for the underwater photographer.
Silver has begun selling his prints online, and is donating a portion of those proceeds — as well as complete access to his photos for marketing purposes — to The League to Save Lake Tahoe.
“Anyone who lives here or plays here knows the issues that Lake Tahoe is facing. There are a lot of serious threats to not only the water, but the Basin as a whole. The League has been doing so much work, and they seem to make really good decisions regarding conservation,” said Silver.
Silver’s large collection of “Tahoe Clarity” prints are available for purchase on www.tahoeclarity.com, where you can also browse his gallery and read about his latest dives on the blog.
Several “Tahoe Clarity” prints are also on display at the Benko Art Gallery, located at 3929 Lake Tahoe Blvd. No. 2 in South Lake Tahoe.