Texas Tech University

Worth 1,000 Words: Mary Beth Koeth Puts Her Own Spin on Storytelling

Lucy Greenberg

June 28, 2021

Mary Beth Koeth

Texas Tech University alumna of the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts has forged a notable career in editorial and commercial photography.

Mary Beth Koeth grew up visiting her grandfather at his nursing home every day.

“I loved going to visit him,” Koeth said. “While my parents were talking, I would sneak off and go talk to the other residents. I would wander in and out of people's rooms. I knew many of them weren't getting visitors, and older people just want to share their stories. As an 8-year-old, I began to practice listening. There is something really powerful about sitting and listening to people.”

Koeth, now a successful editorial and commercial photographer, listens to stories for a living.

Mary Beth Koeth is a 2005 graduate of Texas Tech University's J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts. She graduated with a bachelor's in design communication.

Born the youngest of five children to devout Catholic parents, Koeth was raised in Texas.

Her favorite memories include getting the upper hand on her prank-prone older brother Mark by scratching the “ex-lax” off a chocolate bar, playing roller hockey in her Wayne Gretzky skates, curiously sniffing hazardous chemicals in her school's photography darkroom and visiting her grandfather at the nursing home.

After her grandfather passed away and the nursing home visits stopped, Koeth began looking for stories elsewhere.

“I attended an all-girls Catholic school, and they had a photography darkroom that I would spend all my spare time in,” Koeth said.

She took her first photography class her sophomore year of high school.

“I remember coming up with these crazy ideas for stories and recruiting friends to help shoot them,” Koeth said. “Most of the ideas were terrible; but I was having fun. Being in the darkroom and seeing that image first appear, there was magic in that moment. I remember losing complete track of time when I was in there.”

As high school drew to a close, Texas Tech wasn't on Koeth's radar. But thanks to a well-timed campus visit with a friend, she quickly changed her mind.

“I arrived on campus and instantly fell in love with the place,” Koeth said. “I went home and immediately applied.”

She didn't have the money to rush a sorority but making friends was a must, so she took matters into her own hands.

“I got to campus a week before class started,” Koeth said. “I moved into Chitwood Hall and sat in my room with my door open for seven days.”

The City of Lubbock’s Police K9 Unit
The City of Lubbock's Police K9 Unit

Sure enough, her outgoing nature and lighthearted demeanor attracted plenty of friends before the semester even started. They spent their time marveling at the larger-than-life tumbleweeds around town while becoming regulars at Chimy's and Rosa's Café.

In her three-and-a-half years at Texas Tech, there were many highlights, but none as important as her teachers.  

Phoebe Loyd was one of my absolute favorite faculty members,” Koeth said.

Loyd was a popular art history teacher who has since passed away.

Dirk Fowler, Carol Fowler, Carla Tedeschi and Brian Wheeler all had their own unique impact on me as an artist,” Koeth said. “I adore these people and stay in touch with them.”

While Koeth's passion lay in photography, she feared it would never transfer into a financially viable career. So instead, she chose to study design.

“Even though I work as a photographer now, it worked out perfectly to study design,” Koeth said. “So many of the principles I learned throughout my degree have made me a better photographer.”

Whether she was learning shape, color, texture or space – she was preparing for a photography career she wasn't sure she would ever have.

“After I graduated, I went to work for Hallmark as a greeting card designer,” she said. “It was a good experience, but I struggled with designing something from scratch on a blank page.”

Koeth's mind would race back to stories she wanted to tell. Particularly the stories of people around her. She struggled to connect how she would tell those stories through greeting cards.

From Koeth’s Miami Boyfriends Collection
From Koeth's Miami Boyfriends Collection

After five years with Hallmark, Koeth talked herself into taking on student loans and a new address in Florida, to attend Miami Ad School.  

“Deciding to go back to school for photography and take on the debt associated with it was a hard leap to make with an already established career in design,” Koeth said.

It ended up being a leap worth making.

“When I first started photography school, I thought I might want to go into fashion,” Koeth said. “I did a few shoots and realized it didn't interest me at all, so I just started photographing people in my neighborhood. There are a lot of old Cuban men sitting on porches down here in Miami.”

“Sitting and talking with those men brought back memories of my grandfather's nursing home. I remembered what it was like listening to those stories. It was in that moment I knew I wanted to work with people and shoot portraits.”

Koeth began experimenting with telling people's stories through the technique she was quickly acquiring in school.

When you look at one of her portraits, there are colors and light and texture that relay a story. The pictures have their own mood, and you know what kind of story it's going to be with the first look.

Then, Koeth's own world suddenly lost color.

“My older brother Mark took his own life at the end of my first year of photography school,” Koeth shared. “I did not properly grieve that loss. I was trying to be supportive of my family and I continued on through school and just focused on graduating.”

Three years after Mark's passing, the grief caught up to her.

“I got to this point where not only could I not produce anything artistically; I couldn't move forward personally,” Koeth said.

The joy that came from working with people and listening to their stories wasn't there anymore.

Robert “Raven” Kraft
Robert “Raven” Kraft

Then, she met Raven.

Robert “Raven” Kraft lives in South Beach and has been running eight miles every night since 1975. He has not missed one evening.

It was around this time that Koeth crossed paths with Raven. She began running with him on the beach and listening to his story, which she would later capture for Southwest: The Magazine.

“I couldn't get myself out of my grief,” Koeth said. “Through therapy and other resources, I was able to move through that grief and found stories that made me come alive again.”

Raven was one of those stories. His forward motion sparked something similar in Koeth.

Some would argue that an artist' best work comes from their darkest moments, but Koeth disagrees.

“I got back to a point where there was this big, goofy grin on my face,” she said. “When you're lit up and feeling like yourself – that's the best place to create from.”

Wayne Gretzky for Masterclass
Wayne Gretzky for Masterclass

Koeth began to gravitate back toward the projects that excited her most. Her joy and sense of humor began to return.

“I got to shoot stills of Wayne Gretzky for Masterclass,” Koeth said. “I wouldn't describe Gretzky as a particularly warm personality, so I just focused on getting my shots in and being professional. No small talk, no fluff. I was there to get the job done.

The last day, Koeth had a 30-minute window to work. Excited about the set and how her frames were looking, she decided to offer up a story.

“You know Mr. Gretzky… I grew up playing roller hockey in Texas and always had my Wayne Gretzky skates on.”

Gretzky chuckled and they moved on.

During the final session of the day, Koeth could tell he was ready to be done. She had been given 20 minutes for final shots but finished in five.

As she wrapped up, Gretzky said, “Alright roller girl, get up here. I want a picture with you.”

Stephanie Hills for the New York Times
Stephanie Hills for the New York Times

“I was shocked. It wasn't something I would have ever asked for; but it was this moment of complete warmth from him,” Koeth said.

After a shoot that was mostly mechanical, it ended with a moment of connection that left them both leaving with a smile.

A different kind of project that deeply impacted Koeth was a story she helped capture for the New York Times.

“The Times approached me and told me they wanted to tell the stories of people who were struggling with guilt in the COVID-19 pandemic,” Koeth said.

The woman she was assigned was named Stephanie Hills, a 68-year-old who had lost both her parents to Covid. Hills especially grappled with the guilt she felt over not saying goodbye to her mother.

“The Times wanted me to shoot photos in Hills' home since that was where she spent her time during the pandemic,” Koeth explained. “But when I got there, Hills was expecting the shoot to be outside. Suddenly the expectations shifted, and I had to direct the shoot in a direction Hills was not planning.”

What came of it though, was conversation about the things in Hills' home. She showed Koeth the eccentric 1970s couch that belonged to her parents. It was too ‘vintage' for the Salvation Army to collect. Which was maybe for the best as she sat on it and told stories.

“Ultimately, I just asked her to take me through what a normal day was like for her during the pandemic,” Koeth said. “The photo that the New York Times ended up running was this lovely shot of her sitting at her kitchen table reading the paper. Which in itself isn't anything fascinating, but the shot captured her story.”

David Beckham for ESPN
David Beckham for ESPN

Koeth has mastered the craft of listening to a story and retelling it through pictures.

“Hearing people's stories is the best part of my job. If I get a photo from it, well, that's just icing on the cake,” she said.

Even now as a successful editorial and commercial portrait photographer, Koeth holds tight to her Texas Tech roots. She has worked around the globe for brands such as ESPN, AdWeek Magazine, Texas Monthly, Time Magazine and Billboard Magazine, but she attributes much of her artist success to the foundations laid in West Texas.

When thinking back to her alma mater's fight song and the idea of ‘striving for honor,' Koeth shared what that has come to mean in her career.

“I think for me, it means honoring the story,” she said. “When I am telling someone's story, I want to do it justice. The beautiful part about what I do, is that it's never about me; it's about the person I'm featuring.”

“I will tell the story from my perspective, but I look for something in the story that I recognize. Something that inspires me. Then I figure out how to take that feeling and bottle it up into a picture to share with the world. That is how I honor the story.”

Koeth’s grandmother, Edith
Koeth's grandmother, Edith

Since becoming a full-time photographer, Koeth has come back to Texas Tech to guest lecture at the School of Art, and shares wisdom with current students.  

“Stop putting so much pressure on yourself,” Koeth said. “The path you pick as a first-year student is likely not the path you'll be on forever. It's the first step. Where you are now is not where you will finish. So, have fun. Make a list of things that light you up and find a career that is in line with that.”

A project that lit Koeth up recently, was capturing a portrait of her 100-year-old grandmother, Edith.

“When you know the story, that's when you get real depth behind the picture,” Koeth said. “Technique can be taught, but capturing the story isn't something learned in a classroom.”

“If you want to be great at your art, learn to give people a quiet space to fill with their stories. They have a lot to say.”