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Life through the lens of Benita Keller

By Staff | May 7, 2010

Benita Keller in Peru Photo by Steve Parker

In 1997 Benita Keller was working in Russia covering one of the first free elections. She had been in-country for two months and was taking photographs at a polling booth outside of Moscow when she was arrested. The charge – not having permission to take the photographs, despite the fact that the guards had allowed her into the polling place with her camera in full view. Then there was that trip to Africa. Benita had been in Nigeria filming for months and when it came time to go home she was allowed to leave but her film wasn’t. Machine gun-toting guards confiscated sixty rolls of film. Benita was watching helplessly as two months of work was disappearing. Suddenly the pilot flying Benita’s ride back to the states came to the rescue and stuck the film in his carry-on and carried on.

National Geographic award-winning photographer, Sam Abell once said Whether working or not, photographers are looking, seeing, and thinking about what they see, a habit that is both a pleasure and a problemRussian jail time could definitely be considered a problem. Armed guards at the Nigerian boarderproblem.

Benita Jane Anderson’s life began on a farm in Kearneysville, West Virginia. Juanita and Robert Anderson had two sons, Monte and Rendell, and one little girl. “My dad was a brick mason and carpenter, not a farmer. But he always wanted us to live on a farm and so we did.” There were cows and chickens on this quiet 40-acre self-sustaining spread with the creek running through and the Anderson kids all had their own horse. “We didn’t have money but we had other things. Life on the farm shaped who I am.” When little Benita was five years old her cousin taught her how to twirl a batonand do it pretty well. Ten years later, Benita Anderson was the lead majorette at Shepherdstown High. “I tried cheerleading for awhile but it wasn’t for me. I wanted to lead not follow and a majorette got to lead the band on the playing field and in parades. I loved it. “

Following graduation Benita entered Shepherd University to major in business and secretarial studies, married her high school sweetheart, Charlie Hough, and worked in the registrar’s office for Agnes Tabler. The marriage ended when Charlie went on to pursue a Masters Degree at UVA and Benita chose to remain at Shepherd.

Shepherd had just begun a new photography program and Benita fell in love with all of it. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do.” It’s one thing to know what you want to do but it’s another to come up with the money to do it. Benita needed money to continue her studies and so she became a real estate agent. The licensing test was to be given in three months and even though she was told that it was unheard of to be ready in three months, she decided to go for it. Of course she passed. All the while, still working and studying at SU she received an associate degree in business and fine arts and then went on and earned an RBA.

John Gossage is an American photographer, noted for his artist’s books using his photographs to explore under-recognized elements of urban environment. He was what Sam Abell meant when he talked of photographers always seeing and thinking. Gossage, a New Yorker, began his career at 16 and later moved to Washington, D.C., received a grant from the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, refined his photographic technique and has been exhibited since 1963. Gossage photographs are in The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, Germany, and the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. Gossage was teaching fine art photography at the University of Maryland when a young woman with no portfolio and no training in the subject entered the class. “I knew the rest of the class was way ahead of me but I wanted to learn from him. When he got to my work he said ‘This looks like someone trying to make art.’ That was devastating. I left the class, drove away and didn’t go back. A couple of days later John called and asked where I’d gone. I thought his critique meant I wasn’t very good and said so. He said ‘What you’re doing is who you are.’ So I took that as encouragement and went back to class.” Gossage took Keller under his wing and told her to keep studying and put together a real portfolio. She did and a career in fine art photography was born.

Benita was working at Shepherd when she met Ronald Keller. He was an electrician at the college and she was still working part-time in the registrar’s office. They fell in love, married in 1983 and moved to Big Poole, Maryland in a historic home with Fort Frederick State Park as their front yard. In 1983 Benita graduated from the University of Maryland and in 1984 the light of her life, Sarah Jane Keller, was born. Wise beyond her years, Sarah was a progressive child. Dante’s Inferno was a favorite book. She was a huge reader and a straight A student.

Mom was now an adjunct professor at SU, teaching evening classes and bringing her daughter along to sit in. Home schooled at twelve, by the time she was fifteen Sarah was taking classes at Hood College. At sixteen she was taking advanced classes. “She loved learning.” Today, Sarah is working on her Master’s Degree in Climatology at the University of New Mexico. Her husband, Jim Curry is a Computer Scientist with Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque. One of the best wedding photographers anywhere captured the Keller – Curry Wedding in exquisite black and white.

I could probably win something for the sheer number of wedding albums I’ve perused over the years. Hundreds isn’t an exaggeration. But one serene afternoon at The Bridge Gallery I came upon a black and white photograph of the slender back of a bride in a vintage wedding dress with those little covered buttons open to the waist and stopped in my tracks. The photo was in the “Wedding as Ritual” project and it was pure art. It was mesmerizing. I asked about the artist and the name Benita Keller stayed with me.

In 2000, Benita moved to Shepherdstown. She and Ronald had divorced but remained friends with a mutual love – their daughter. Sarah lived in Shepherdstown during the week and spent weekends on the farm with dad. Living over the Sweet Shoppe, teaching at SU and traveling with her work kept Benita “seeing and thinking.”

In was in 1990 that Benita Keller had met international photojournalist Larry Towell. Larry was with the Magnum Agency and saw Benita’s work which screamed “photojournalist,” became her mentor and another brilliant facet of Benita’s career was born. Over the years her work as a photojournalist, artist and author has taken her to Africa, Vietnam, Russia, Haiti and to Cuba.

Today, Benita lives and works from a great house on Blue Goose Lane. One she shares with Steve Parker. Steve works at Leesburg Honda Dealership and has for twenty nine years. The two just fitthey are indeed a couple with a lifestyle full of fun, friends, family, art, food and travel. “Steve is far better than a good cook.” Benita admitting she doesn’t work in the kitchen. “His homemade pasta and smoked salmon are the best you’ve ever tasted.” This day, amid the pink flamingos, there were pots of flowering plants filling the kitchen because we’d had a slight freeze and Benita is a protective and loving gardener.

Benita and Steve love spending time with friends including Katherine Burns, Michael Hauver, Bruce Wilder, Hali Taylor and “All the musicians in town are our friends.” The Mecklenburg, Blue Moon (Steve plays a mean guitar), and Press Room are their hangouts. They’ve sailed the Caribbean with friends and in ’04 hiked the entire Inca Trail in Peru. Benita celebrated her fiftieth birthday on the trail.

Benita Keller is a teacher – Shepherd, The Art Institute in DC, Montgomery College of Art & Design. She’s in the archives of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in DC. She’s an award winning a fine arts photographer and photojournalist and was listed by the Ernst Haas Award as on of the top 100 photographers in the United States. And there’s so much more.

The 3rd Jefferson County Photography Project directed by Benita Keller opens at the Bridge Gallery May 15 with a celebration reception from 5:30 – 7:30. The project of black and white photographs of Jefferson County taken by C. Mason, Carl Shultz, Joanna Pecha, Jessica Hartman, Rip Smith, and Frank Robbins. The exhibition continues through May 30 and it’s not to be missed.