Photographer Profile Series - #1
After being born in Duluth in 1983 and residing here until 1989, the twists and turns of life brought Charlie Smith elsewhere.
After his parents’ divorce, Smith, along with his mother, Linda Popkes, and his brother, Tim, moved to South Dakota – the home of the boys’ new stepfather. Later, college, followed by a few career hops, kept him away as he matured into adulthood.
But his beloved hometown was never far from his mind - and heart. “Growing up, Duluth was always our vacation spot,” he said. “Duluth has always been a staple in my life. Going over Thompson Hill was, and still is, a thrill for me.”
Smith finally moved back home to Duluth in 2014, which brought him a sense of peace, and the comforting feeling of home. Since then, he has experienced success in all areas of his life. Today, he is a photographer (many of his compelling images have been featured with Destination Duluth); a Duluth Transit Authority (DTA) bus driver; a homeowner; a dog dad; a volunteer; and is even engaged to be married.
Smith recently opened up about his journey and shared his story with Destination Duluth.
After graduating from high school in Estelline, South Dakota, Smith attended a year of college at South Dakota State University. As a young man, he struggled to find his niche.
“I bounced around on the eastern side of South Dakota until I turned 30. There was just no stability,” he said. “I was living out my 20s, trying to figure out my life. During that time, I changed oil, was a bouncer at a bar, sold cars, changed tires, and built kitchen cabinets.”
He continued, “While selling cars, I landed a job at a wholesale driving company where I’d be driving a semi-truck, and I came to Duluth for a vacation. But, when I returned to South Dakota, I found out the job had been given to someone else, and my roommate was selling his house and moving. So, I was basically going to be both homeless and unemployed.”
After doing some soul-searching, Smith said a bittersweet goodbye to his family in South Dakota and returned to Duluth in 2014. Thankfully, his father, Dale Smith, still resided in Duluth, along with much of Smith’s extended family, providing Smith with a built-in support system in his old hometown.
After settling in, Smith found work building cabinets and later worked as a certified nursing assistant (CNA). He soon discovered, however, that his real passion was in the world of photography.
“The invention of the smartphone with a camera was really what sparked photography for me,” he shared. “I started out with a Blackberry Flip Pearl, and seemed to have an artistic eye, along with an eye for lighting and angles. I could make a simple cell phone shot unique.”
Smith’s photography, along with his small business (professionally, he uses the name Charles Howard Smith Photography, in homage to his heritage; Smith was named after his grandfathers, who were both WWII veterans), continued to improve and grow.
Today, Smith’s specialties include images of landscapes, wildlife, and the northern lights. He often travels up the North Shore, chasing down the perfect shot; often requiring a rope and cleats to reach his destination.
While Smith is happy to share the details of his current equipment (he has upgraded to a Nikon D850, and a Nikon D500 for wildlife shots), he is reluctant to give out his secret locations. “I would just say that the Arrowhead Region of northern Minnesota is good, and Boulder Lake Reservoir is a good place to start,” Smith said with a chuckle.
Smith sells his photography through the website SmugMug, which is linked from his Facebook page. Recently, he sold over 100 calendars, which feature Smith’s images of a moose in a pond, the northern lights, Bentleyville, and other unique photos.
His photography has been a great addition to Destination Duluth’s online presence, too; he has had over 100 images featured on their social media platforms since 2016, with over five million impressions.
When it comes to advise for other budding photographers, Smith likes to keep it simple.
“The best camera is the one you have on you,” he shared. “You don’t need all the fancy equipment to get started. Use a cell phone. Just capture the moment.”
Career and Family
In addition to his photography, Smith works full-time as a bus driver for the DTA. His routes take him all over Duluth; from downtown to UMD; from the mall area to Lakeside and Gary.
Another special interest is his volunteer work. Smith volunteers time around the holidays to dress up as Santa Claus for the residents at Viewcrest Health Center. “I just love doing it,” he said. “There are some folks there with dementia or Alzheimer’s, and you can just see the memories flooding back.”
Smith and his fiancée, Brittney Russ, own a home in Duluth’s Morgan Park neighborhood, which they share with their three dogs. The couple will be getting married in October 2022 at Gooseberry Falls, which is a site sure to provide some captivating images.
Eventually, the couple hopes to purchase some acreage near Two Harbors and add children to their family.
The Draw of Duluth
After several years away from his hometown, Smith is glad to be home. “The Lake, along with the beautiful views, were my biggest appeal to coming home,” he said. “It just becomes part of your soul; who you are. I love how you can drive while staying in Duluth, and see trees, waterfalls, wildlife, and hike on the Superior Hiking Trail. And, the people here are so nice and really embrace winter.”
Speaking of people, Smith also noted his gratitude for the good friends he’s met through the pursuit of photography in Duluth, including Randy Wolf and Jeff Doty.
Ultimately, Smith hopes to continue honing his photography and growing his business. He shared, “My goals and dreams are to build my photography enough so I can retire early and go exploring.”