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Double Exposure

Laurie and Charles Kay


Laurie and Charles Kay

“When you know, you know,” Laurie Victor Kay, of Laurie and Charles Photographs, likes to say. And not just about the art of photography and her professional instincts. When she met Charles Kay, Jr., he knew, too. Although they both attended Omaha Central and graduated only two years apart, they actually met well after high school in 1996, becoming engaged three short weeks after their first meeting and marrying barely a year after that.

Eighteen years, two children and a successful photography business later, they still know.

“We’ve only known working together,” Charles said. “We met in a photo studio, we started our business, and then we got married.”

“It’s when the person who commissioned the portrait looks at the images and says ‘that’s the one’.” ~ Charles Kay


The couple, who both have college degrees in photography, have photographed famous faces like pro golfer Tiger Woods and actor Michael Imperioli, and nationally recognized local subjects such as moviemaker Alexander Payne and artist Jun Kaneko. They’ve shot commercial work for major companies like Nike and world-renowned organizations like the American Red Cross, plus an array of local clients from Wheatfield’s to Bungalow 8 to the University of Nebraska Medical Center and The Orthodontic Group. Their images have appeared in esteemed publications including Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure and The New York Times, and their work hangs in New York, Chicago and other galleries.

Before their high-profile work, the Kays started out in personal portraiture, and it remains the core of their business together. They specialize in finding the beauty in everyday people, like the little girl hugging her mother’s leg as she peers up past the pregnant belly concealing her unborn sibling. Or the vigorous young man in his prime bridging the generation gap with a protective arm around his aged grandfather. There are lovely brides, business and community leaders who exude confidence, playful couples, teens on the cusp of adulthood. And of course, families and children at all stages from angelic toddlers to squirrely school-agers to young teens at the peak of physical awkwardness.

“All those phases are beautiful and I really mean that. We are capturing, truly, this moment in time,” Laurie said. “I’ve always loved the notion of having that work in their homes.”

“I love our commercial work, but people really cherish those portraits, and that’s why it’s such a big part of it,” Charles added. “When we’re doing a commissioned portrait for a client, I always think of it at the end of the day—especially if it’s their own children—when they’re shutting off the lights and walking through the room. You walk by that portrait, and you might stop and pause when that portrait is speaking to you for some reason.”

Depth of field

They’ve photographed sleepy newborns and even captured precious but bittersweet final portraits of individuals whose families knew their time together was running out. The couple have photographed every phase of life, and for some families, multiple generations.

“I’m photographing people I photographed as babies,” Charles said. “I’ve done their wedding portrait and their babies’ portraits.”

One reason why families return to chronicle the next stage, and a factor in the success of the couple’s business, is that the Kays take time with their subjects in studio to ensure that a truly unique portrait emerges, he explained.  

“It’s when the person who commissioned the portrait looks at the images and says ‘that’s the one’,” Charles said. “You always have to connect with them. I really enjoy photographing and meeting people; I like the conversation that happens in a photo shoot.”

“We do live and breathe what we do, and we’ve been able to make each other better at everything. Over the years I think it’s really made our work stronger.” ~ Laurie Kay

Character study

That connection also helps the photographers identify the most meaningful images, which aren’t necessarily those that fit an idealized—or standardized—vision of how a client thinks he or she should appear, Laurie said.

“It’s part of our job, to help curate that,” Laurie said. “I like something that is a little bit left of center...a little bit off, a little bit unexpected.”

With their multitasking studio team of what Charles refers to as “uber-perfection people”, including Kevin Jones and Amy Schmeeckle, each portrait is eyed by several people as part of the painstaking retouching and finishing process.

“It’s a balance: what do you leave, what do you keep? It’s definitely an art, and there’s no formula,” Laurie said. Charles added, “You want it to still feel like a person...not made by Mattel.”

“I think our whole business, our whole career right now, is really about relationships—those with our portrait clients, our commercial clients, and gallery owners and collectors,” Laurie added.

Behind the scenes

Their commercial work has come to them mostly through referrals, much of it branching out from a global branding campaign for Accenture starting a decade ago. Commercial opportunities multiplied as the couple’s availability to travel mostly in the U.S. but sometimes internationally, both with and without their children in tow, increased.

“The professional side is so, so important to us that if we’re shooting jobs that involve very long shoot days, that’s just not fair to the kids,” Laurie said. “There’s a delineation for sure between certain jobs where they’re with us and (when) they’re not.”

“Commercially, we grew that business once our kids were of the age where we could leave and go do those things,” Charles explained. “We’re very hand-on parents, but there have been times when we’ve missed birthdays and it’s just a bummer. I always try to make the effort to ‘be there’ as often as possible, maybe to a fault. We’ve turned down jobs because of (family) things.”

“We’ve only known working together. We met in a photo studio, we started our business, and then we got married.” ~ Charles Kay

Family portrait

Charles is a second-generation photographer, and he sees creative abilities in both his children, but he doesn’t envision the business evolving into Laurie and Charles and Miles and Evie Photographs. Son Miles is 14 and interested in writing and studying business, and 12-year-old daughter Evie aspires to be a pediatric oncology surgeon, he said. “They’re really smart kids who are having fun.”

Both adult Kays, who live in Dundee, have served on various boards including the Omaha Children’s Museum and The Rose, among others, and they regularly contribute their professional services to nonprofit organizations. As alumni, and with their son set to enter Central High School in the fall, they are both active with the Central High School Foundation. Much of the Kays’ other volunteer activity in recent years has also been connected to their children.  

“I personally come from a family that was involved philanthropically and it is something that you do pass down,” Laurie said. “Hopefully I can teach my children, as well, to be involved with their community and reach out, and this is a great community to be involved in.”

Wide shot

Laurie and Charles Photographs is located downtown at 1412 Howard Street, in a building the couple renovated in 2005 to create studio, office, framing workshop and storage space under one roof. It still has a darkroom, although the business has transitioned to digital. As they always have, the Kays use a variety of shooting equipment from Hasselblad and Leica to Canon and Polaroid, but they’re staunch Mac fans when it comes to the post-processing side of the business. They’ve been online for years, with the studio and collaborative website at laurieandcharles.com and individual work at charleskayjr.com and laurievictorkay.com.

“When we went to digital, we waited until the best product came out for us,” Charles said. “It cost more than my first car—no, more than my current car—when we made the investment to go digital.”

“I had told Charles we’re never going to change to digital until I can have a print that’s done with portraits that is equal or better,” Laurie said, adding that she’s also glad to do away with the chemicals used in photo processing, both personally and environmentally.

Even in this age of selfies and technological leaps and bounds such as cellphone cameras, Photoshop and Instagram, clients still ‘get’ the difference between snapshots and professional portraits, Charles said.

“Another element that is still something people appreciate is our hand-finished prints, and we’re still printing to standards that are museum quality. This beautiful finished, framed piece that we deliver to clients’ homes hang it on their walls...that whole process makes people appreciate that even more,” Laurie explained. “Let us slow down here, and let us do our study in the studio and really capture a true portrait.”

“All those phases are beautiful and I really mean that. We are capturing, truly, this moment in time.”~  Laurie Kay

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