By William Meiners (MFA ’96)
Mark Laita (BA ’83) shot portraits of homeless people on Madison Street, west of downtown Chicago—subjects he says he found inexpensively as he began learning how to photograph people in a dignified way, regardless of their zip code.
Growing up in Elmhurst, Laita conceded to his parents’ idea that college and career should be about things like engineering, science, and law. “I went to Northern Illinois for a year and studied biology and then went to University of Illinois and studied engineering,” says Laita, who first picked up a camera with serious intentions around 14 years old. “I just didn’t fit in.”
“In my mind, I was always a portrait photographer. I just never promoted that work.”
Those original missteps in academia helped convince his parents that an art school like Columbia could be the perfect fit for a budding young photographer. Laita says Columbia’s darkroom classes and instruction on black-and-white printing helped round him out as a photographer, but the work itself is a maturation process he’s still going through at age 52.
For his first book of noncommercial work, Created Equal (2010), Laita spent eight years traveling the country to capture the vast diversity of Americans. He says the project was driven by his “desire to remind us that we were all equal, until our environment, circumstances, or fate molded and weathered us into whom we have become.” Pictured are “Polygamists/Pimp” (2004/2003) and “Baptist Churchgoer/White Supremacist” (2004/2003).
In a career now spanning almost 30 years, the California-based Laita made a name for himself in the commercial world, shooting product stills for high-profile clients such as Apple, Adidas, and Clinique. When given the chance, however, he returned to people. “In my mind, I was always a portrait photographer,” he says. “I just never promoted that work.”
He showcased that passion in his first book, 2010’s Created Equal, for which he traveled the lower 48 states, discovering America’s true diversity. Laita and an assistant talked to cops, mailmen, restaurant workers—anyone who could lead them to various subjects. He photographed people inside garages, up against houses, practically everywhere. The “Baptist Churchgoer,” complete under bonnet with Bible in hand, alongside the photo of the face-tattooed and handcuffed “White Supremacist,” are just two of many seemingly polar opposite examples Laita found living in one nation.
Nature’s colors, shapes, and movements have also inspired Laita’s fine art. Some of his flower photographs were made into US postage stamps. His book, Sea (Abrams, 2011), is a high-definition color exploration of marine life. His third book in three years, Serpentine, due out next spring, tested both his photographic eye and nerve for snake handling.
“It’s finding the balance with something you love to do with doing things that help you make a living.”
Though the fine art is freeing, it’s not designed to be a moneymaker, says Laita, whose work has appeared in US and European galleries. “When you’re working for a client, there are certain things required that you can’t budge on. There’s lots of compromising in advertising, but that’s part of business. With fine art, there’s almost no collaboration.”
It comes down to feeding yourself and feeding your soul. Whenever asked to speak with aspiring photographers, Laita suggests as much: “It’s finding the balance with something you love to do with doing things that help you make a living.”
And as Laita knows, whenever the two coincide, they can make for beautiful pictures.
For 10 years, Apple used Laita’s photography in campaigns to introduce the iMac, iPod, and other electronics.
When Laita’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, he photographed a series of flowers, which he printed and sent to her every few days throughout her chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Some of the images, including "Tulip" and “Magnolia,” were selected to adorn US postage stamps in 2007.