Featured Artist: George Duluth

Featured Artist: George Duluth

Featured Artist - "George Duluth" Ilstrup

For many, today’s guest will require no introduction. His incredible imagery has already inked an indelible impression in your North lovin’ noggin; his crisp captures of radiant reflections over the breathtaking Boundary Waters are a thing beyond beauty; and those ice caves… forget about it! After pouring over his answers I am thoroughly convinced, now more than ever, that the man's talent is surpassed only by the amount of time and effort he puts into developing and perfecting his craft. Since beginning the blog portion of our site "George Duluth” has consistently come up as one of the most requested interviews candidates (and it’s not hard to see why...hence the never ending visuals), so today, it is our great pleasure to fondly fulfill that request. 

Alright so usually we like to get started by asking about how you got into photography in the first place but since Tucker Olson basically called you out to do this we thought we might open this up with something a little different... what’s the most embarrassing story you can share about Tuck?

Honestly, Tucker probably has a lot more embarrassing stories about me than I do of him, but there is one that comes to mind and I’ll never let Tucker live it down. A few years ago Tucker came up to me with this idea that he wanted a picture of himself doing a handstand on the edge of a cliff. I told him that I thought it was an idiotic idea, and he would die, especially because he couldn’t handstand for longer than a couple seconds. Flash forward a couple weeks, and Tucker tries to do a handstand on a cliff at Bean Lake and nearly falls off the edge. There’s a video of this out there but I’ll let Tucker decide if he wants to share that one or not.

Ok, now... how about we get back to our usual ice breaker... can you tell us a little about the story of George Ilstrup and how it is you happened to get into photography in the first place?

Let’s do it! I did a lot of skateboarding and snowboarding throughout high school and I bought a DSLR camera so I could film and make skateboard and snowboard videos. I made some mediocre videos throughout high school, and this gave me some basic camera knowledge but I never really was interested in photography until my sophomore year at UMD. I ended up tearing my ACL and both Meniscus’ in my knee and had to get reconstructive knee surgery. This meant I couldn’t skateboard or snowboard for about a year and needed to find something to occupy my free time. I dug out my old camera and started messing around and trying to take cool pictures around Duluth. The pictures I took back then were trash, but I fell in love with photography. From there, I started branching out and meeting some other people in the photography community in Duluth. I ended up shooting a lot with Ian Deloney, and he taught me a lot about shooting and editing. During my junior year at UMD, I started to grow out of the party phase of college and really started to focus on photography and spending all of my free time doing it. I fell in love with the North Shore and have been hooked on it ever since.

Clearly you have an affinity for the North Shore having selected the moniker George Duluth... what is it, in your opinion, that makes the North Shore such a special place for you and do you ever feel a certain sense of responsibility to the community of Duluth having embraced their title in your handle?

Once I started taking photos regularly, I thought I had to think of some cool Instagram name. I remember trying really hard to think of something, and the best I could come up with was George Duluth. It’s funny because it’s probably the least creative name I could have chosen.  I’m obviously obsessed with the North Shore, but man is it an incredible place. Between the different seasons and conditions, I truly think it’s one of the best places to photograph that I have ever been. There’s a lot of factors that make it special. The landscape itself is incredible, and then you add the different seasons and it puts it on a whole different level. We have some of the most beautiful fall colors in the country, some of the coolest winter conditions, and a beautiful summer season. The variety that you can get is amazing, and if you’re willing to go the extra mile and get to the hidden spots you can take some very unique photos. Another aspect about it that I love is how underrated it is. There’s less photographers here versus other beautiful places such as Zion, Yosemite, etc, so you can take a photo without someone else having the exact same one. I remember shooting a sunrise in Yosemite, and there was literally a row of 50 photographers taking the same exact photo. It’s such a better feeling if you’re the only one out there enjoying the moment in peace. I’ve traveled to many insane places, but I haven’t gotten bored of shooting Lake Superior and Northern Minnesota. If you think it doesn’t have the potential, you’re just not trying hard enough. I could go on and on but I’ll stop there.

Your Instagram bio mentions that you are a special education teacher, what drew you to that type of work and when did you know this was the career path for you?

Yeah! So I went to school at UMD to be an Elementary Teacher. I’ve always liked kids, and it seemed like a job I would love. The program at UMD requires you to also become licensed in special education. I was originally bummed, because I didn’t think that I would ever become a special education teacher. I student taught in a couple special education classroom, and absolutely loved it. There’s a lot of different areas in special education, but I am an elementary EBD teacher, which stands for Emotional or Behavioral Disorders. This means that I work with kids on managing behaviors and regulating their emotions. It’s exhausting work at times and many people don’t understand how hard of a job it is to be a special education teacher. While it’s exhausting, I’m enjoying it and it seems like a meaningful career to me. I’m fortunate to be at a school with a lot of amazing teachers that I’ve been learning from and it’s been really moving to see how invested everyone is.

A year or so ago you spent a good chunk of time overseas, posting incredible photos from a number of beautiful European landscapes. What was that trip like and what was the highlight of that trip for you? Any places you would highly recommend, places you’d love to go back to, or places you wish you had gotten to visit?

Yeah, that trip was a part of my life I’ll always remember. The purpose of the trip was actually student teaching in Ljubljana, Slovenia. I flew into Europe a month before I started student teaching. During that time, I was able to travel to Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, and Austria. I spent some time travelling with my dad, some time travelling with my girlfriend, and a lot of time travelling by myself. I’m the type of person who likes to wing it, so I didn’t plan out a lot of my trip, which led to some questionable situations. Each weekend of student teaching, I would rent a car and drive to various locations near Slovenia. During this time, I travelled to Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Croatia, and inside of Slovenia. It was awesome to just be able to rent a car, drive 2 hours, and be in a different country. If I had to recommend a place to travel, I would tell people to go to Slovenia. It’s very cheap to travel in and is an incredible place. There are amazing landscapes, towns, architecture, and friendly people. The highlight of my trip was actually the last week before I flew home. I met my buddy @shawnsahli in the Lofoten Islands of Norway, and we spent a few days exploring that area. The highlight of the trip was climbing a hike known as Reinebringen. This is a sketchy, steep scramble up the side of a mountain that leads to one of the wildest overlooks you could ever imagine. We were there at the end of October, and it ended up snowing over a foot the morning that we wanted to do the hike. My hiking shoes had gotten stolen earlier in my trip, and I was too cheap to buy new ones so I had to wear my Vans. I just remember slipping and sliding everywhere, and I’m not sure how we actually made it to the top. Once we did, a storm came and we sat there huddled up for about 30 minutes. Once the storm passed, the sun poked out and lit up the entire landscape. There were multiple moments where we questioned turning around, but we kept going. One of the best memories I’ve ever have with a camera in my hand.

Lately you have been delving more deeply (quite literally) into in-the-water and underwater photography, regardless of season in Lake Superior... that seems like it would be a fairly frosty undertaking... what made you want to get into that (again literally) and then a quick follow up of which I absolutely mean no disrespect but... are you crazy?
It had always been in the back of my head as the next thing to photograph on the North Shore, but Paddle North hit me up and asked if I’d be interested in getting a paddle board from them and getting it out on the lake. Originally, I didn’t plan on doing underwater/swimming stuff, I just wanted to be able to take photos from my paddleboard. Once I researched the gear I would need, I realized that I could also start swimming and getting in the lake itself with that gear. I did some research and ended up buying a wetsuit and underwater case, and it’s been a blast. The water is cold but isn’t too bad with a wetsuit and you’re smart about how long you stay in. I’d say the scariest thing about the lake is taking photos of the waves from the water. The temps are fine, but waves can be scary.

Seriously though, as someone who has never had the pleasure of self-inflicted submerging into the fiercely frigid winter waters of Lake Superior, can you walk us through what it takes, what it’s like and what kind of gear does one need for that icy endeavor?

It just takes a thick, hooded wetsuit with boots and gloves to get out there. It’s intimidating the first couple of times but after that it’s pretty fun. You should have some sort of fins if you’re swimming and I always wear a helmet because of ice and rocks, especially when swimming in waves. The first morning that I swam in Lake Superior was actually one of the coldest times that I’ve ever been in the water. It was -25 degrees out and I decided to go swim at Tettegouche because my wetsuit and underwater housing had just come in the mail. I got out for sunrise, and was amazed to find out how warm I stayed while swimming. It was a blast and I was instantly hooked on being in the lake. The painful part is getting out of the water and changing out of the wetsuit in the freezing cold. A lot of people think getting in the water sounds crazy, but there are a ton of surfers who will get out in some of the coldest winter temps if there are waves on the lake.

What’s the coldest water you’ve ever gotten into?

The coldest water temp would be around 35 degrees, and the coldest air temperature around -25 degrees. It’s interesting on those days because it almost feels warmer in the lake than outside on those days.

Late last year the iconic landmark known as “The Thumb” unfortunately met it’s match during an epic winter storm, as someone who had captured many memorable shots of the beloved Superior sea stack what did it mean to you and how do you feel now that it is gone?

I mourn the loss of it every morning and night, my life will never be the same. Haha just kidding of course. I honestly wasn’t upset that it fell. It fell from natural causes, and I think that it’s cool how you can that the shoreline is always changing. I know that Tucker had mentioned this in his interview, but that spot could also get really dangerous in the winter months. It was almost always getting covered with ice, and getting to the edge could be super sketchy without the proper crampons, which most people don’t wear. For example, the popular shots with massive waves crashing over it were terrifying. 40 Mph winds, icy ledge, and getting hit by waves. I think someone eventually would have fallen off and into the lake. It was a fun spot while it lasted and I was fortunate to shoot in just about every condition I could have asked for. However, there’s a ton of other equally amazing spots on the North Shore.

I was recently speaking with another photographer who frequently shoots along the North Shore and they confided that, on more than one occasion, they had enjoyed the great fortune of shooting certain scenery in the same location as you happened to be that day, at the very same time, from virtually the identical angle and yet to their lament your work somehow turned out head and shoulders above their own. They went on to say that it doesn’t matter who else is out there, or how many photographers are all lined up trying to capture the same incredible sunrise… consistently yours will be the best of the bunch in their opinion. Which begs the question: what type of wizardry is this? What’s secret sauce goes into the magical George Duluth photography recipe?

I appreciate whoever said that, but I don’t really agree. I often go out and shoot with some of my friends and I end up liking their photos more. It depends on the location and the conditions. One thing about photography, is that it’s all about how often you get out and shoot. It’s one of those things that you only get better at by practicing it. There’s little details that you pick up as you get more experience. Things like finding leading lines, having an interesting foreground, having a balanced composition that can set photos apart.

Do you prefer to shoot by yourself or with friends and why?

I enjoy both! It depends on the situation. It’s way more fun to get out and shoot with a group of friends. The only time I prefer to be by myself is if I found a new spot that I’ve never seen pictures of. If I find something new, I generally like to get the first pictures of it. If it’s any other spot, I prefer being with friends!

What are you looking for when you go out to shoot? How much planning do you do beforehand?
Nowadays when I go out to shoot I’m really trying to take unique photos. I’ve shot every popular location in this area, so I’ve really tried to spend my time shooting more unique locations. A lot of this has been done by getting out on the water, but there’s cool spots hidden everywhere. I’ve done a ton of planning and searching to find hidden little spots these last few years. Getting out on the water also takes a good amount of planning and preparation. Now that I have a good grasp on where a lot of spots are, some mornings I will just wing it and decide where I’m going as I’m driving up the shore. I am still always looking for new spots and planning out cool shots. I think I’ve found some new sea caves that I’m excited to get out to soon.

How much of the final images you post are a credit to what you are able to achieve in camera and how much is a result of your editing process? Also, what is your approach to editing?

I only post pictures that I’m really happy with and that have good lighting. I think the most important thing is to have good lighting, because you can’t really fix that with editing. My editing process is pretty simple and is almost always just done in Lightroom. I try to keep edits simple for the most part. I like vibrant colors in my image, so I will usually add some vibrance to my photos. I try to keep my photos looking accurate to what the scene actually was. The one exception to that would be night sky photos, because the camera is capable of picking up a lot more detail than the human eye. People often say that milky way images look fake, but the camera just picks up more detail than our eyes can see.

What in photography would you say challenges you? What do you see as your strengths? And what resources do you use for improving your skills?

Water photography has been really challenging. I think everything with it is challenging, but that’s what makes it so fun. Taking photos in the winter time also adds a whole new layer of challenges and that’s something that makes those photos more special. My strengths are just that I do it a lot, and I’m willing to put in the work to get a shot. It’s also important to be open minded and willing to put yourself out there in uncomfortable situations and try new things. There’s tutorials out there if you’re trying to improve on a specific thing, but generally you just get better by doing it more. Practice and getting out there in new and challenging situations is how you improve.

As anyone can see from even a prompt perusing of your Instagram feed, you happen to be a stellar photographer… and by that I mean someone who routinely goes out and shoots astrophotography, the Northern Lights and even the legendary ˘theatrics of midwest thunderstorms on occasion. What advice might you have to offer any novice looking to attempt capturing these various types of low-light imagery?

Youtube tutorials are helpful and then just getting out and doing it a lot. Know the settings, and then just practice. Your first time shooting astrophotography will be frustrating, and you just need to learn from it and keep doing it. I’ve gone out so many times and had my pictures turn out awful. That’s just part of it, and it’s the only way you’re going to get better. There are great tutorials for how to shoot and edit any type of image you can imagine.

Being that you are "George Duluth", ambassador to the “Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas" itself, if an out of town friend or relative happens to pop in for one day and one day only where do you take them? What are your city of Duluth musts?

I usually suggest them to head up the shore or explore some areas in Duluth such as Congdon Park, Lester Park, and Chester Park. There’s a ton of beauty right inside of Duluth and that’s a unique feature for a city. Other than that, there’s plenty of good food and beer in the area. It can be fun to just get out and go to some different local breweries. My favorite place that I would recommend to everyone is the Thirsty Pagan across the bridge in Superior. By far the best pizza in the area and they usually have some live music.

What would you say is your favorite season? Favorite thing about shooting in Minnesota? And favorite location to shoot?

Winter! My favorite thing is getting out in the different seasons. Winter is my favorite because the lake is always changing with ice and waves. My favorite location is the whole Silver Bay/Tettegouche area.

What do you do when you’re not out shooting? (Any hobbies, favorite shows, play any musical instruments, etc.)

In my off time I like to snowboard, skateboard I don’t do either of these a ton because the vast majority of my time is spent outside shooting.

We’ve caught glimpses of you skateboarding on some of our mutual friends stories... what’s the hardest trick you have ever been able to pull off and what’s the coolest sounding trick you know?

I was never great at skateboarding, but I can still cruise around a skatepark. I used to try a lot harder with skateboarding but now I keep it pretty lowkey. My hardest trick I’ve ever done was 5-0, frontside 360 shove it out but that’s really nothing special. Some of the coolest sounding tricks are probable Lazer flips, Impossbiles, Hardflip etc.

Now I’ve got a couple quick questions from Instagram:

– First someone named Mr. Tucker O. would like to know… "Who is your favorite Veggie Tales character?"

Qwerty the Computer

– Someone else asked… “What is your favorite f-stop?"

F/24 Always

– Another writes…  “What time do you have to go to bed to catch every single sunrise?

Depends on the season!  I generally go to bed early and wake up early every day. On weekdays, I’m usually in bed by 8 or 9pm and awake by 4am, so getting up early on the weekends isn’t much different.

– "How does it feel to be the most known photographer in Duluth?"

It’s cool but it’s not that crazy. My life is pretty ordinary and the only difference is that someone will occasionally recognize me. I am thankful to have my work recognized and all of the support and nice messages I’ve recieved from them.

– "Any used gear for sale?"

Nope! I am pretty hard on my stuff too so I don’t recommend anyone buying from me haha

– And finally… "How do you find such unique locations (like the caves of Tettegouche)?"

Researching online, Google Earth, and just getting out there and looking.
And that concludes the Instagram audience participation portion of our programming. Now back to our regularly scheduled questions…

Do you happen to have a favorite photo you’ve ever taken?

If I had to pick a favorite it would probably the lightning strike over Vernazza in Italy. That was truly a once in a lifetime shot and I’ve never seen a shot just like it. I got lucky, and captured that photos seconds before getting hit with extremely heavy rainfall that had me running for cover. I was so pumped when I got back and saw that photo on my camera.

Who are your heroes? Or who have been some of the biggest influences in your life thus far? (Photography or otherwise)

Tough question! There’s countless photographers that I look up to. Chris Burkard is an inspiration because of how crazy his adventures are, but there’s so many others that I can’t even name them. I look up to anyone who’s willing to get out and doing something adventurous or different. Seeing other people do crazy, adventurous things makes me want to get out and do them. I also look up to my mom for how positive she has always been. I’ve been trying to work on having a more positive attitude about things and a positive attitude is especially important in photography because it can get tough and frustrating.

Any bucket shots on your list?

Greenland and Antarctica are at the top of my list. Otherwise, I’d like to get out storm chasing a couple of times this summer. A close up photo of a tornado is another shot that I’d love to get in my lifetime.

What’s one piece of advice you would offer someone who is just starting out as a photographer?

Be willing to suck, because you’re going to right away. If you’re willing to put in the time and work you will love it, but it takes time and doesn’t happen right away. Stick with it and connect with other photographers.

This one comes from our previous featured guest Tucker Olson who would like to know … HEY GEORGE WHAT ARE YOUR SETTINGS?

F/22, ISO12,000, 1/6000 shutter speed

What one question would you ask our next featured guest? (Anything you like… may or may not be a photographer and the more ridiculous the better)

What would make you valuable in an end of the world scenario?

Now... if I told you Christian Dalbec was going to be the next feature after you, what one question would you have for him? 😉

I’m curious what his scariest/most dangerous moment as Split Rock was?

Time to pay it forward... who else would you like to see featured on this blog?

The homie Ian Lundborg!

Thank you so much for your time.


For more Geoerge Ilstrup goodness check out his work on...

Instagram: @georgeduluth
Web: georgeduluth.smugmug.com



Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.