Josh Kowaleski just finished rigging out his new portrait studio bike on a Salsa Blackborrow. Working with Cedaero, his bike can fit his cameras, lights, stands, and more. He'll be shooting portraits of cyclists fighting their hardest miles at Le Grand Du Nord, The Fox, and Heck of the North.
Josh Kowaleski is an adventure photographer who owns Pointed North photography. See more of his work on his website or follow him on Instagram.
You specifically designed this setup for photo-by-bike; how did this idea evolve?
This idea of mine draw from a few different sources of inspiration. I’m not one to limit myself in what I think can be done, and I’m not afraid to just try something and see what happens. I don’t mind chasing down a ridiculous idea that comes up in a conversation around a campfire every now and again! That said, this project is a culmination and reflection of my circle of influence in my friend group. Conversations that happened in passing, asking “What if?”, and then just being curious enough to try to make it happen. If this project was represented in a Venn Diagram, it would live right in the sweet spot for me between photography, bikes, and silly ideas.
I am actively drawing inspiration from my buddy, Ben Weaver, and his approach to performing music off his bike. Most notably his 2018 ride on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route with “Music for free”, where he carried his guitar and banjo down the divide and played shows along the way.
I am also looking over at my friend, bike nerd, and mentor in photography, Minneapolis-based TC Worley. TC is a phenomenal photographer and videographer, and he has some seriously cool projects under his belt. One of his personal projects is “Portrait Van”, where he built out a portrait studio in the back of a Dodge cargo van. He hauls that thing around and takes portraits along the way.
For a proof of concept, Salsa’s chase the chaise is hard to ignore. That whole crew had a lot of fun hauling a couch out onto a racecourse and then spending the day taking photographs of riders on courses like Mid-South 100, Unbound, Le Grand Du Nord, and a few others.
Lastly, I was simply inspired by the blank canvas, think big, be weird, choose your own adventure platform that is the Salsa Blackborow. When I worked at Cedaero/Spokengear we were approached by Salsa to make the packs for the “Ode to Trout” bike. We had a prototype tucked away, secretly, in the sew shop for the summer and I spent too much time playing around at the bike shop on that bike! With just one look at it, the blank canvas that it provides will have you cooking up your own silly ideas as you try to get to sleep at night.
Why do you want to be shooting bike events right from your own bike? Isn't that limiting?
I believe in bikes.
Bike rides change people. Long rides, short rides, rides in the rain, solo rides, and rides with friends, all change people and I’ve NEVER had a bike ride that I’ve regretted.
I firmly believe that any bike ride is transformative.
As an active participant in long distance gravel races, I know how hard the back half of the day is and I believe that there is something to that 80-ish-mile mark that’s unique. It’s the spot where you’ve worked so hard to just get to. You’ve battled your highs and lows, and you may still be fighting some of those thoughts and thinking about quitting.
You are just close enough to know that you’re going to finish and just far enough away that it still seems kind of daunting.
That’s the spot where I want to spend a minute with the rider, offer up some words of encouragement, hear their story on the day and take a portrait that tells their unique story. A story that only exists in that fraction of a second, right there in the woods. I’ll offer them a high five, and then send them on the way to the finish. The person that crosses the finish line is a different person than they were at mile 80 when we hung out. The mile 80 person is different from the person who started the day. Riders need to know that person that lives within them and to see that part of themselves.
The day has been long at that point, and I think you’re the toughest and at the same time the most vulnerable in that mile 80ish window.
I want people to have that image to look back at and be reminded of their story from that
This bike looks ravishing. Tell me about your rig. What are you riding and how did you configure this pack setup?
The bike is my 2018 Salsa Blackborow that I’ve converted over to a 29er for the summer season. It’s the bike that I’ve been riding the most lately and it's super fun!
Most recently it’s been pulling its weight as a pint-sized adventure rig for my son and me.
Cedaero provides the packs! I’ve had it equipped with a frame bag and a few packs since I originally got the bike in 2018 and late this winter, I sat down with Karl at Cedaero and he and I began to dream up the setup that would be ideal for carrying my camera gear.
It was not a small feat to figure out. As it sits, I can carry two studio-style strobe lights, two stands for those lights to be mounted on, two light modifier setups, and then all the small odds and ends that come along with me.
We had to keep the lights secure from bouncing around and protected from any weather. We had to protect my camera and have it be accessible while riding. We had to figure out how to carry collapsible stands and with that, how to keep the stands upright when deployed. It’s common to use sandbags to hold lights in place in the studio, but what do we do in the woods? Karl designed me some custom, re-usable, re-fillable “sandbags” that I can fill with whatever I find out on the course. I can use rocks, gravel, sand, or snow(?) and then empty them so I’m not riding around with the additional weight penalty.
It’s well thought out and checks off all my boxes for this setup.
What kind of photos and events do you have in mind for this project?
In the first draft of this idea, I’d like to try and execute studio-style portraits, like in the image below, but of riders at that mile 80ish mark as we talked about above. This is where I’m starting but not the only way that I want to make photographs at these events. We will see what it evolves into.
As far as events go? This season I’ll be taking the portrait bike around the arrowhead region as I chase down riders at Le Grand Du Nord, The Fox/The Wolf, and my personal favorite and the all-time classic, The Heck of the North.
Jeremy Kershaw was open to this idea and has partnered with me this season with his events to see if this works out. We will see what lessons I learn this season and how the project evolves, but I’d love to continue to approach like-minded race directors around the Great Lakes region to see if the portrait bike could make an appearance and offer up a unique spin on documenting these events, regardless of the season or the distance.