A free spirit cyclist and photographer from Duluth Minnesota, Josh Kowaleski looks for nontraditional ways to document adventures. Last year he became a dad and is enjoying the new pace of life while growing his photography project, Pointed North Photo. In this interview, we discuss bikes, fatherhood, and some of his favorite shoots.
I first met Josh in college at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. We both rock climbed and rode bikes. I still have a homemade cribbage board that he gave me when I got married over a decade ago.
We've lived in different states for a while now but continue to follow each other's bike adventures. I'm extremely proud to get to share his work with you in this interview.
Tell me about your photography project, Pointed North Photo, and where are you headed with it?
Pointed North as a concept came out of a bit of boredom in 2015. I was tired of my instagram handle and was kicking around some new ideas and I had no idea that it would inevitably be something I could build a brand around years later. I liked the image of a compass and always having a constant bearing , a consistent reference point to make decisions around, a basic guiding principle.
I liked the imagery it conjured up in my mind of wandering the woods, exploring. Like most everyone knows, all good things are found the further north you go. I came up with Pointed North and it stuck.
Where am I headed with it? As with any adventure, I’m not quite sure. I'm going to keep going in this direction though with Active Family Portraiture and see where it takes me.
I hope it brings me all around the region, documenting all the different people who live up here, doing the things that they enjoy the most with those they love the most. Things like skiing the first set of tracks through droopy pines while quarter sized flakes fall from the sky. Or, riding steep and gnarly singletrack on your mountain bike while your dog nips at your heels. Maybe it’s chasing trout with your loved one, fly rods in hand as you journey up a North Shore stream?
Those are the moments that keep us here. Big loud moments and small quiet ones. I want to capture them all and I want to share them.
You’re originally from Northern Minnesota? What’s it like finding new ways to document an area where you’ve lived almost your entire life?
Yup! I was born in Duluth and spent my early childhood in the U.P. of Michigan and then we moved to Minnesota.
I love it here. Between the bike, the camera I feel like you have no choice but to see things differently, even if it’s the same gravel road you’ve been down a million times before. The bike forces your body to move at the pace of the land and to engage with it. The camera forces your eye to look for fun details. The two in combination are magical. Then you just play in the woods. It always feels new.
I’m fortunate to live where I do. I’m fortunate to have quick access to adventures that are large and adventures that are small, right from my doorstep. There’s a running list of things to do and you get to configure those combinations of things to do based on what the weather and your time frame give you. There’s an infinite combination and I feel in some ways like I’ve only just started, despite living a whole lifetime up here.
It’s my opinion that if you’re bored it’s your own fault.
What gear do you shoot with?
I'm pretty in love with the Fujifilm X System. I love the mechanical and tactile feel of the bodies with all of their dials.Their lineup of lenses are amazing, and the big thing is that it’s all really packable. The cameras are little powerhouses and because they’re unassuming and retro in aesthetic I feel they allow me to be in a scene and to shoot portraits of people without it feeling intimidating or like they’re in a big production photo shoot. The camera’s are unassuming and I love that quality the most.
My kit for shooting most everything is my x-t4 paired to my 50-140mm f2.8 and my 10-24mm f4. For portrait work I use the x-t4 with a 50mm f1.0.
As a second camera I have an x-t20 with a 27mm f2.8 pancake lens. This combination is tiny. It's pocketable and easy to slip into a pack. This combination is the most unassuming and allows for some really intimate shots. This combination is mostly used for my own, personal documentation of my family, but it does land in a pack and join me every now and again..
What bike are you riding these days and what routes and events have you been into?
Bikes:Living in Duluth I have access to a lot of different types of riding and that lends itself to having a line of tools for the different types of “jobs”. I love steel and tend to lean that way with my bike choices.
To keep the list short, I won’t go through all of the bikes but I will say that if it came down to choosing the bike that would be the very last one to leave my collection, it would be my custom Surly Karate Monkey Single Speed. I just love that bike. It’s purpose built to tackle everything that Northern Minnesota has to offer and it is just a riot to ride. I have a few different parts to configure it in a few different ways. It’s simple. It’s reliable. It’s versatile and It’s steel. I’ve put a LOT of miles on that bike and it is my personal favorite in a lineup of some pretty sweet bikes.
Routes & Events: I haven’t participated in an event in a while, between COVID and the welcomed addition in our family of my Son, I’m not in a spot to tackle as many events in a year as I have in the past. Most recently a group of likeminded dad’s all got together and we rolled the 50 mile edition of the 2021 Heck of the North.
Prior to COVID and the arrival of my son, I routinely enjoyed a LOT of the events that our region hosts.
2019 was a pretty big year on the bike for me. I do all of my long distance stuff on the single speed and checked of the Mid South 100, Lutsen 199er (shuttled to the start, rode the race, rode home to Duluth) which was prep for the CRUSHER 225 Point to Point in the Upper Peninsula, and there was a few mountain bike races in there too with events like the Wausau 24. I closed out the season with a fat-bike adventure with a few friends, riding to a remote checkpoint in the Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon where we volunteered as dog handlers for the mushers. That was probably the highlight of the 2019 season for me.
The region is so full of all kinds of fun events that you can keep yourself as busy as you want to, year round.
As far as routes go, I prefer to mostly ramble around and see where I can get to on my bike. I got into bikepacking this way and I think it’s the most fun. Growing up in this region and seeing a lot of remote places from a Jeep or an ATV really opened my eyes to what’s possible on the bike.
My first bikepacking trip was simply a trip to see if I could get to this one remote spot that my family used to go to with our Jeep, and to try and get there by bike. I then just continued to try and visit those places that were so far out there but by bike. No route, just riding familiar roads and trails.
This is more my style. Pick a spot and go there, simply because you want to see what’s there.
It seems like a lot of your photography centers around families that are active together; why has that been such a focus?
The short answer is that I like people! Ha!
The longer answer is that I really think it’s a fun niche that I haven’t seen represented in photography. We see classic family portraits, everyone all wearing the same color, posed, multi generational etc. That’s great! Those images are important. I am just not good at taking them.
This style that I’m embracing grew out of shooting images of my friends riding their bikes, hitting jumps and screwing around in the woods. It’s morphed into this category that’s between action sports photography and family portraiture.
It’s families recreating together. It’s sweaty, it’s dirty, it’s raw and it’s real. I have shots ranging from a family day at the cabin, with the dog about to steal an ice cream cone out of the hands of a toddler, to images of teenage boys hitting big, gapped jumps over their parents.
I don’t pose stuff. I just come along for the ride with your family and document “you” doing whatever it is that you all like to do. It’s a blast and every shoot is different!
You recently became a dad; how have you found a balance between an active lifestyle and being a young parent?
Early on it was a bit difficult but now that he's bigger and more sturdy, we have adopted a philosophy that “he goes where we go and he does what we do”.
Obviously this is within reason, but lately I just bundle him up, throw him in the pack or the sled and head out. I’m tuned in enough with him where I can read his body language and interpret his verbals and make decisions around him.
In the winter he seems good for about an hour to an hour and a half outside, so I just tailor my adventures around him and keep them in that time frame. Knock on wood we haven’t had any major meltdowns in the woods yet. No long hikes back to the car with him screaming or crying.
To be honest, I don’t really care if I ever do another long distance race or event. I want to do as many adventures as I can with him, at his pace, on his time, however he wants to do them. That’s my adventure now. That’s my goal. Follow him around and just try and keep up.
I feel like if that’s the approach, balance shouldn’t be too hard to come by.