Local photographer Kelli Engstrom is a family-focused business owner and personal trainer who has lived in Crosslake for 17 years.
Kelli grew up in Ham Lake before moving to the lakes area after frequent trips to a family cabin. Her family used to own Kent’s Atwater Resort in the 1920s on Island Lake and still has a cabin there.
“As a kid I always wanted to live here, so when I was 15 my mom said, ‘Well, if you get a job, you can live at the cabin.’ So I got a job and I’ve worked at all the restaurants,” Kelli said.
She then went to photography school, took business classes and got her degree in business.
“I started taking pictures when I was 18 and I just started growing,” Kelli said.
Rick Hammer, a photographer now based out of Duluth, helped Kelli start in the business.
“Rick Hammer is amazing. He showed me the ropes and helped me out and taught me a ton of stuff,” she said.
Making a photography business successful in the lakes area was a challenge. At first, Kelli was busy in the summer months but the winter would be quite slow.
“It was hard because I would shoot for three months out of the year and then I would be like, ‘I’ll forget how to use my stuff,’” Kelli said.
From there, her business has grown significantly, often through word-of-mouth referrals. She now runs Kelli Engstrom Photography full time.
“It definitely is hard to make it. Luckily now, after 17 years, I feel like I have a fantastic client base,” Kelli said.
Her work last month alone confirms this. Kelli shot photos for 42 families in July. Also, she photographs about 17 weddings a summer.
Kelli shoots a variety of subjects from high school seniors to weddings. Her favorite subjects, however, are families.
“I really love big family reunions,” Kelli said. “Family is so, so important to me, and I feel that if we don’t record the families they’re not going to have their blueprint in history.”
Many of Kelli’s clients come from the Twin Cities area and are people who come up to area resorts or cabins.
“Some of them I’ve been photographing for 15 years,” Kelli said. “It’s very cool, especially when I see my work on their walls in their cabin.”
Kelli frequently shoots outside and on location.
“A lot of people ask me why I don’t have a storefront,” Kelli said.
Her lack of a storefront is deliberate. “A storefront for me would not be able to let me go out and have that creativity,” she said.
Kelli also thinks that a studio dynamic does not fit well with the atmosphere of the lakes area.
“Most people that come here to vacation don’t want to come to a studio to be photographed,” she said.
Ultimately, Kelli’s photography is more than just a job. “It’s not about the money. Recording the history is so cool,” she said.
“You look back at our Crosslake history books and they are so neat. My grandfather is in it, we have friends in it and their parents are in it, and I think it’s so neat and I get to be a part of that, which is something super cool,” Kelli said.
Besides photography, her primary focus is her family.
She and her husband, John, have three children — Maverick, 13; Beau, 9; and Mercedes, 7. John Engstrom owns J.T. Construction of Crosslake.
“My kids do everything with me,” Kelli said. “I’ve always wanted them to be a part of everything I do.”
Family activities are her main hobbies. As a family, the Engstroms often spend their free time going to motocross races and hockey games.
Kelli is also a personal trainer.
“I love to do that, I love to work with people,” she said.