Women in Business series presented by UMB Private Wealth Management.
Renowned local photographer Jenny Wheat certainly knows her way around a camera. However, that wasn’t always the case. Wheat started taking pictures 15 years ago—learning the tricks of her trade as she went along and—get this!—with the assistance of a few helpful YouTube videos. “I got a camera for fun. I wasn’t a photographer and I didn’t go to photography school,” admits Wheat. “I started taking pictures and felt like I had a good eye for it. And then I had a baby and started taking pictures of her. And then my friends wanted me to take pictures of their babies.”
She laughs as she tells the story of setting up a home studio complete with “a wrinkled white sheet in my living room and a lightbulb. It was hilarious. I was just trying to make photos of their babies that, you know, didn’t look horrible.”
From hyper-humble beginnings, Wheat and her sister-in-law opened a photography studio in the hinterlands of De Soto, Kansas, shooting senior portraits and headshots. “Every year we’d ask where do we want to be a year from now? We would set goals. Every year I would go in the direction of where I wanted to end up,” she says.
As Wheat’s photo prowess blossomed, so did word of mouth. “All those moms who came to us for all those years for family pictures referred us and helped us break into commercial work,” says Wheat. “A lot of those moms helped me get into modeling and portfolio work. Or they’d send me to their husband’s companies. I had so many good supporters early on. And I still do.”
Now Wheat is crisscrossing the country, shooting national campaigns and high-end commercial photography. Girl power rules the roost too. “Along the way, I’ve had an almost entirely female team, a female squad. And that’s fairly unusual,” she says. “Clients often expect a bunch of guys to pull up—and then there’s us. There we are. ‘Hi, there!’”
The more Wheat Photography has grown, the more comfortable she became in her own skin. She all but demands an easy-going, jovial sense of camaraderie while she’s on sets—no matter how harried things get. It’s become her mantra. “Having fun is high on our list of things that are important. We are a rambunctious bunch,” she says, laughing. “You know what we are? We are zany, super-professionals. Business-minded artists are hard to find.”
Asked what sets her apart from her peers, Wheat gets pensive. “Yes, I’m good at photography, but I’m really good at making people feel comfortable,” she says. “But I truly think being nice to people is a lot more important than the photography.”
Meanwhile, Wheat finds herself paying it forward nearly every single day. She takes great pride in mentoring younger girls who are dipping their toes in the photography pond. Many of her interns have gone on to stellar careers of their own. “I never, ever fail to answer an email from someone who wants to bend my ear, or who compliments my work,” she says. “You want some advice over coffee? Let’s do it.”
She looks back on her early days with a sense of fondness. “We’ve gotten so much better as a team,” Wheat says. “In the last decade, we have really grown—our skills, our niche, and our quality and level of clients. It’s no wonder we feel really comfortable with large national accounts and agencies. Kansas City has been incredibly supportive. You know, I’ve never advertised myself. All of my business has come solely from word of mouth …” she pauses and chuckles. “That, and my own silly self on Facebook.”