Portraiture photographer Mary Beth Koeth went from designing Hallmark cards to traveling around the world as a professional photographer.
Growing up, Koeth went to an all-girls school, where she developed her interest and passion for photography and spent most of her time in the darkroom. Koeth went on to earn a degree in Design Communication at Texas Tech University and went on to work as a designer for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City. After moving overseas to work for Hallmark in the UK, she spent her weekends traveling Europe with her camera, and soon came to realize her old dream to pursue photography. Koeth spent some time in Norway assisting photographer Nancy Bundt and decided to go back to school, where she also interned for Miami photographer Sid Hoeltzell and Los Angeles photographer Joe Pugliese.
Koeth has spent her career pursuing portraiture, capturing personal and intimate moments of her subjects. Her niche focuses on human stories and creating visual narratives through portraiture. Each of Koeth’s series weaves an anecdote of a person or a focus, all the while creating a storybook effect through her compilations. One series, entitled “Off-Season Santas” features a collection of six off-duty “Santas” enjoying their time off outside the winter holiday months. Each Santa is captured at a moment in their daily lives, in the middle of hobbies or jobs, offering a glimpse into a world where mall Santas become more than just their beards. Another series depicts the Lubbock K9 Unit in Texas. Each photo depicts a different police officer with their K9 companion at both training grounds and crime scenes. The bond between the dogs and their policemen is evident, captured beautifully in Koeth’s lightly staged yet totally natural photos.
Koeth balances the costs of funding her personal work by taking on commercial gigs. She shoots mostly editorial portraiture work for magazines like Billboard, American Way, Southwest: The Magazine, and Ocean Drive. She has also worked with celebrities and major brands, including tennis superstar Venus Williams and Google. Interestingly, Koeth’s portraiture niche is the common theme throughout her personal and commercial endeavors and demonstrates the importance of having a niche when developing a name for yourself as a photographer.
Artrepreneur interviewed Koeth to further discuss how her portraiture niche has catalyzed her photography career. Here we take a look into the photographer’s take on portraiture and her passion, pursuit, and outcome through doing what she loves.
A Focus on Portraiture in Commercial and Professional Endeavors
NS: Why did you decide to focus on portraiture?
Mary Beth Koeth: I love people, and I think it’s really interesting when you meet other photographers because generally, they tend to be a little introverted and sensitive when shooting portraits. I am very curious about the struggle between introvert and extrovert in photography, and I love it. Portraiture was always just a natural direction; going from working for Hallmark where I was in a cubicle, it’s nice to get out there and be with people.
NS: What made you transition to photography as your career choice?
Mary Beth Koeth: In high school and college I was always in the darkroom, and even though I loved it I just didn’t think I could make a living out of it; that’s why I chose graphic design. When I was working in the UK for Hallmark, they had a photo studio as well as great photographers, and I started secretly wishing I could change jobs. It so happened that they let me do product photography. Being overseas and traveling all the time I wondered why I wasn’t doing what I wanted. That’s what made me think I needed to go back to school and pursue photography.
NS: How did you start off in photography?
Mary Beth Koeth: My first paying gig was people hiring me for weddings—this was before I went back to study photography – so I was shooting a lot of family and baby portraits. Being older and out there in the professional world, you realize people change careers throughout their lives. I decided I could make this work. I had worked for a photographer in Dallas with I was in high school, so I knew I didn’t want to go down the path of family pictures. So I went back to school instead.
NS: There are many different paths to take in the world of photography. How did you go down this one?
Mary Beth Koeth: When I went back to school at Miami Ad School, I had the chance to work with amazing editorial photographers. Joe Pugliese is a photographer who shoots a lot of celebrities, and I always thought that’s what I wanted to do. Despite this, I realized what interests me in my career is the personal work I do; finding themes and people with amazing stories and following them. With celebrities, it’s more challenging finding someone who wants to be in front of the camera.
In terms of career goals, my intention was to bring stories to light as opposed to commercial work. It’s difficult to say that because it’s what you get paid for and known for. People recognize who you’ve photographed and you tend to get hired based on that. For instance, I did a shoot for Venus Williams, and afterward I got many job offers. For me, being in Miami is such an advantage because there’s a gap in the market; there aren’t a lot of portrait shooters. So that’s why I am getting jobs that I’d never get elsewhere, and why I’ve chosen to stay in Miami. Personal work has always been important to me, despite being expensive. If I get a commercial job, I’ll take that money and spend it on personal projects. Commercial work comes and goes, and the money is great, but in the end, it’s so fun pushing out personal work. I always want to keep that as part of what I’m doing.
NS: One of your photo series is titled “Off-Season Santas.” Can you tell us about that?
Mary Beth Koeth: With a title like “Off-Season Santas” people know what they’re going to look at. Some of the Santas have amazing stories. When I pick themes like this, I keep a journal that I go back to for ideas on personal projects. Once I started this project and meeting the Santas, it began to unfold. There’s minimal staging: I just walk around and find a place that feels right and then start with the lighting. It’s nice to see the space where someone resides and photograph them in their homes. The project usually consists of the images themselves and the backstories.
Lean on a Network of Professionals to Reach Your Audience
NS: How did you successfully place these images in national news outlets like Huffington Post?
Mary Beth Koeth: I approached the production company Wonderful Machine with my Santa story, and they helped me reach out to different publications. For getting your images out to the press, When it comes to stuff like that, I know they’ve done this before and they have contacts everywhere, so it’s easier to create a team around the project. .That’s one of the things I’ve learned that’s really helpful.
NS: Can you tell us a little more about Wonderful Machine and how you utilize their services?
Mary Beth Koeth: Wonderful Machine is a company that has all kinds of resources for photographers that are very helpful. One of which includes the ability to hire producers who work out the details of your personal and commercial projects. You hire them hourly, and they manage estimates and pricing for big commercial jobs. They also sort out rights to photos, where they’re being used, all those details I don’t want to get into as a photographer. It costs $150 per month to sign up for Wonderful Machine, but within the first month of doing so, I landed a job that paid for the entire year. So it was definitely worth it.
NS: You headed up a Kickstarter Campaign to record the story of Robert Raven Kraft called “Robert Raven Kraft: Unstoppable.” Tell us about the project and what it’s like to run a Kickstarter.
Mary Beth Koeth: I did videos when I was in school, but with Raven, I had two years to work the footage before the Kickstarter Campaign. I wanted to do something with it because of his amazing story. Raven has run 8 miles up and down South Beach every day since 1975, through any conditions. This is a story I wanted to tell and reflect in my film. I think the hardest part was the editing process and sorting through the footage; you want to do [your subjects] justice. So we partnered with a writer, and I did the film work. The Kickstarter took a lot to promote and push it out there, all the while finding a group to target. The majority of people donating were family, friends and Raven’s runners. We said we’d need $25,000 to get this project done in the way we wanted it, and we ended up raising $29,000 in 40 days. It was a long project, but worth all the effort. A distributor recently picked it up.
To learn more about Mary Beth Koeth, visit her Orangenius profile.