DULUTH — Michelle Bennett moved through the art studio.
It was filled with Kelly Schamberger’s oil paintings of a ship floating on turquoise tissue paper, a skeleton with a brownish background, a portrait of a woman with maroon hair.
“You can take lipstick off my teeth, right?” asked Schamberger.
“I sure can, or I can add more,” Bennett said, aiming her camera at her more-relaxed client.
The owner of Wolfskull Creative specializes in brand photography and portraits for small businesses, musicians and artists — and considering her portfolio, Bennett seems to be the photographer to the Twin Ports creative community and beyond.
Superior Siren, Anton Jimenez-Kloeckl, Jeremy Messersmith, Karen McTavish, Shaunna Heckman and Abigail Mlinar are a few on her client list.
Duluth singer-songwriter Sarah Krueger has worked with Bennett for promotion photos, shows and personal portraits.
Bennett has the ability to encourage her subjects, to capture their personalities and let them shine in her images. As an artist, it's special to relate to other Duluth creatives by just seeing them in Bennett's photos, Krueger said: “I've watched her grow over the years from shooting recreationally to becoming this really well-respected photographer.”
Bennett launched Wolfskull Creative after a layoff from her corporate job in 2015.
She got to know many in Duluth’s music industry from going to shows and mutual contacts. Then, she offered session giveaways to 10 bands during Homegrown Music Festival, and her work shifted.
“Musicians in Duluth, I don’t think were marketing themselves at that level quite yet. It created a new standard for musicians,” Bennett said.
Bennett recalled working on the concept for the 2018 Superior Siren album cover. On it, Laura Sellner looks up toward the camera while emerging from the dark waters of Lake Superior.
“It looks like she was in the deepest water ever. Really, she was in 4-foot-deep water in Brighton Beach on a sunny day with kids playing around,” Bennett said.
It’s harder to brand an artist than it is to brand a business. A musician has their music, we know what it sounds like, but what does it look like? Bennett said.
It was easy to conceptualize the Superior Siren album cover because she had been a fan of Sellner’s work for years.
For a musician such as Jeremy Messersmith, who had released five albums by the time they worked together, she was able to work backward and have many conversations with him about his concept. (One of her final shots of him shows Messersmith looking off the side of the frame, the lake stretching far behind him with the shoreline trickling in.)
Her work with Superior Siren was “really prolific,” said Clancy Ward. That, and her work with Messersmith, reeled him in.
Ward hired Bennett to shoot for his business, Saltwood Furniture Co., and his band, Sugar on the Roof. Along with photos, Bennett will be rehabbing Ward’s business website and consulting.
“It’s people like her and my son … that really reinstated my confidence in the ability of younger generations,” Ward said.
It has been a long-held passion for Bennett, who recalls photographing others with a disposable camera during elementary school. Years later, her father gave her an old Asahi Pentax.
“It’s a paperweight now,” she said, but back then, she used it to get familiar with the darkroom.
She reminisced about the effects she could conjure.
“I used to get that out of Lomo cameras, where there’s light leak, and really unexpected things that happen,” she said.
She eventually learned photo editing software, and when she started her own business, she wanted her photos to look more painterly. There is definitely a play with darkness and a mood she’s trying to sell, she said. And she often edits her photos so they look like film.
Author Sarah Seidelmann was drawn to Bennett’s aesthetic, and how she captures the dark in her photographs.
“There’s a realness, I would dare to say, a grit, to them, and it makes me feel more connected to each of those artists. They feel more accessible in this world where there’s so many filters.
“As human beings, we’re not all light and sunshine, and not all well-lit,” Seidelmann said.
When Seidelmann was compelled to take photos that were empowering to her personally, she thought of Bennett, saying, “She creates a safe space for you to be yourself.”
Seidelmann and a couple of her friends posed for topless photos on the beach. “They changed the way I think about myself. … I'm part of creation,” Seidelmann said.
Working during a pandemic has been challenging for Bennett.
You prepare for a downswing after the holidays and an upswing during spring, so it was scary when everything was canceled in March, she said.
Bennett moved to Minnetonka at the start of the shutdown. Making the choice to move back home was really difficult, she said, but things are picking up.
She returns to Duluth for days at a time for client work. She has recently photographed a magician, a sunset session on Park Point and photos for Zen Eye Care. And she’s looking forward to being able to expand again creatively, maybe travel with a band as their photographer, when it’s safe.
And as far as the origin of her business name: Bennett wanted something that referred to this area but didn’t necessarily include “Duluth” or “North Shore.”
She has always thought the outline of Lake Superior looked like the head of a dog or wolf.
“‘Wolf head’ sounded a little too decapitated,” she said, so thus began Wolfskull Creative. “I wanted something kind of edgy, it’s kind of rock ’n’ roll, which I like.”