Laura Benitz, photographer and teacher

Laura Benitz, a teacher of photography at Riverside High School and owner of a photography business, believes an emotional connection with her subjects makes for better pictures.

In the warm, soft light of a late afternoon, Laura Benitz can find a happy place. She loves a good sun flare.

The slow march to dusk gives her time to work, allows for clients to change clothes and move to different locations. A photographer recognizes the value of these golden minutes, and Benitz milks them after setting an agreeable tone.

“When you get that emotional connection established, then you feel more comfortable visiting with them, you put them at ease,” she said of her photo subjects. “They feel like they’re talking to a friend even though they have that camera right in their face.”

The photography teacher at Riverside High School, also with a dozen years owning her own photo business, uses technical experience to her advantage. True, she concedes the essential transaction of the medium, the capture of light, can be accomplished in a nearly sterile manner.

Benitz does not work this way, though, and warns her students against it. The predicate of any photo session, she tells them, comes in the form of a conversation, some common ground found, a bond that becomes its own light.

Before she lifts a camera, the photographer will ask her subjects about their families, their work, their interests. She will drop to the floor to play with the kids, letting them know they can have fun with what’s to come.

“I like to talk,” Benitz said, laughing. “When (clients) come to me, I want them having fun. I want them feeling good about themselves.”

A lifelong resident of Wathena, Kansas, except for those couple of years getting her bachelor’s degree at Montana State University, Benitz recalls a childhood that hinted at her future livelihood.

“I was always the one in the family carrying a camera around,” she said. These were the disposable sorts, but Benitz got a bona-fide camera for her eighth-grade graduation, and she went on to take pictures and write for the yearbook at the high school in Wathena. She would be the photographer for her university newspaper.

Artistic talent ran in the family. Her grandfather, Clarence Cuts The Rope, a member of the Gros Ventre tribe, had been a noted Native American artist, his works sold throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. Her grandmother painted, and her twin brother works as a graphic designer.

Benitz would study on her own to learn photo composition and the perspective that increases intimacy in her images. Then, she just worked at it.

Teaching for a time at Wathena, she got her master’s degree in library science and later an art endorsement. While her children were young, she ran the photo business as a full-time concern before returning to the school (now Riverside) a couple of years ago.

In the photography course (she also teaches studio art, web design and journalism), Benitz demands proficiency with the camera before students move on to other aspects of this art.

“I always tell my students the first month, I’m grading you hard on the technical,” she said. “I want you knowing that camera like the back of your hand and then we get into the creativity. Then it just naturally flows out of them.”

She flips open her calendar to show the upcoming appointments in her photography business. Benitz tries to keep a reasonable schedule to not interfere with her family life. Not all the lessons of private shoots transcend directly to the classroom.

In photo sessions with engaged couples or newlyweds or families, there will be some measure of snuggling.

“Some families still want direction, so I’ll say, ‘OK, I’m going to step back now, you guys just hang out, do what you’re doing,’” the photographer said. “’But everybody needs to be touching somebody.’”

Benitz recognizes her work gains her an attachment in the lives of others. Her images will be in homes for decades. She has become close with some folks who started as clients. Tears form as the photographer describes the time she accompanied one family to the airport to greet their newly adopted child.

“That’s probably one of the most rewarding parts about being a photographer,” Benitz said. “Not only did I leave them with a tangible product, the pictures for years to come, but when they look at that picture, they remember the experience.”

She adds, then, playfully, “And, of course, they remember me, so I’ve made a friend that way.”

Ken Newton can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPNewton.