Lee Thomas Kjos isn’t exactly sure why he first picked up his dad’s Minolta 35-millimeter range finder back in 1968. He does, however, recall the subject matter that demanded his attention: ducks. Kjos was born into a family of outdoor enthusiasts (with a particular affinity for duck hunting), though none of them had his same infatuation with photography. He spent decades honing his craft, which paid off: Today, the 57-year-old Minnesotan is the proprietor of Kjos Outdoors, a full-service photography and branding company behind major campaigns for Benelli, Cabela’s, Filson, Polaris, Under Armour and the like.
Family adventures were certainly a big influence. “My dad was a really, really good sportsman, and he traveled everywhere, even back when that was rare,” says Kjos, whose vibe is more ZZ Top meets Willie Nelson than it is Daniel Boone. “When we’d go out hunting and fishing with other families, I’d think, ‘What? This ain’t it, man. You should see the shit we do.’” His dad would often pull him out of school for weeks at a time to duck hunt in Saskatchewan, a beloved destination to this day. By age 13, he had hunted and fished in 13 states and four provinces.
His dedication to photography was palpable. When Kjos was 14, he spent a summer detasseling corn to buy his first professional camera body. That was the same year his parents purchased a hunting and fishing lodge in Bigfork. He spent the rest of his formative years there.
After a post–high school stint in rehab at Hazelden, he went to work drawing and illustrating. His career blew up, as he puts it, when desktop publishing took off. To master the new software, Kjos attended classes at Dakota County Technical College during the day then worked at a metal-stamping factory at night to support his family. Soon he was providing start-to-finish creative services — vision, branding, photography, design, typography — albeit in a corporate setting.
Kjos didn’t strike out on his own until age 40. He credits his friend Tom Dokken, fellow outdoorsman and owner of Oak Ridge Kennels, for helping him take the plunge. Kjos helped him market a product at the famed SHOT Show, which led to gigs for Cabela’s and Eukanuba. And Dokken helped the photographer in more ways than one: “I had no money to buy equipment, and Dok asked me what I needed — a 300-millimeter 2.8 lens — and what it cost — fucking $5,400,” Kjos recalls, his eyes welling up with tears. “The next day, we met for lunch and he handed me an envelope with 54 $100 bills in it.”
All these years later, Kjos is given free rein by his clients, who trust his genius enough to get out of his way. His work takes him across the globe, from Argentina to South Africa to St. Paul Island in the middle of the Bering Sea. “My son, Luke, and I went there for shits and gigs, to hunt the king eider — it’s the only place to kill a king,” Kjos explains. “So when Benelli approached me about showing its new gun in incredibly harsh environments, I knew where to go. It’s miserable shit to photograph in. All the salt just destroys equipment. And there’s volcanic dust everywhere. The day we shot, I think it was typhoon warning winds. Not everybody can do that — not everybody can execute in incredibly difficult environments.”
His favorite place remains his Webster homestead, a 43-acre former pig farm Kjos rebuilt from the ground up. Though he’s in high demand, he makes time to enjoy the great outdoors, often escaping to his beloved Saskatchewan. He brings his equipment (exclusively Nikon) with him wherever he goes, whether for business or pleasure. Does he ever have to reshoot? “No,” Kjos says. “I don’t miss.”
Read this article as it appears in the magazine.