On a wall near the entrance of Rappahannock County High School (RCHS) hang portraits of 15 students who are going to college. The photographs aren’t the standard yearbook head shots; instead, they are black and white layouts that utilize creative lighting and unique poses that showcase the students’ personalities.
Each year since 2007 portraits are hung to honor a new group of RCHS college-bound students. Franklin and Esther Schmidt of F&E Schmidt Photography, LLC, are the photographers behind the portraits, and the subjects are students who have won scholarships through the Headwaters-Rappahannock County Public Schools partnership called Next Step, a program designed to help students gather the resources they need to carry out the college or career plan that they wish to pursue.
“Kids who excel in academics generally don’t get nearly as much recognition as those who do well in athletics, and we want to do our part to change that,” Esther said. “The portraits are an incentive for other kids to strive for academic success. They’re a statement that being a good student is something to be very proud of.”
The Schmidts usually concentrate on architectural photography and their photos and articles are regularly published in magazines such as Architectural Digest, Victorian Homes, and Country Living. They also publish their own books, such as the soon-to-be-released “Passion for Primitives: Rustic Americana in Home Design.” But when the director of Next Step called them to ask if they’d take photos of the scholarship winners, they didn’t hesitate to accept the challenges of a different kind of photography.
“We were thrilled at the opportunity,” Franklin said. “We thought, ‘Here’s a way to give to the kids.’”
The Schmidts use their expertise in architectural photography to create overall ambience, but utilize their people skills to make their subjects feel at ease in front of the camera. Before taking photos, they take time to talk to each student to get an idea of his or her personality and interests, and they engage in conversations that distract the student from the lens. This results in more natural photographs that bring out who the students are.
“We don’t want to give them standard portraits,” Franklin said. “We take what’s normal for each student, and use light in a way to capture something special that the student will be proud of.”
The photographs are displayed onscreen during the photo shoot, and often students will choose the photograph they want to be on the wall. The photos are also used to create banners that are displayed each year at the Taste of Rappahannock fundraiser held at the Belle Meade schoolhouse.
Paula Howland, director of the Next Step program, describes the portraits as very visual and attention-grabbing.
“The Schmidts are simply wonderful,” Howland said. “They genuinely express an interest in each student, and their interest shows in the portraits.”
Howland said that the wall of photographs and the banner are a great tribute to students who excel academically, but they also serve as inspiration for underclassmen who are considering a college career.
“The portraits help them see that although RCHS is a small school, it’s a good one, and they can achieve anything,” Howland said. “We are very grateful that Franklin and Esther donate their time to help our students.”
The Next Step project is one of a number of community service activities the Schmidts have been involved with since moving to Woodville in 1980. Franklin was the founder and president of RappCats, a local non-profit cat rescue organization; Franklin and Esther both were founding members of Rappahannock Association for the Arts and the Community (RAAC) and Middle Street Gallery; Esther works with Child Care and Learning Center (CCLC) in Rappahannock County where she’s a nominee for the board, and both have been active in the Rappahannock County Democratic Committee, where Franklin served as chairman for two terms. They’re also actively involved in a number of environmental causes, including the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection.
“We love the people and the landscape in Rappahannock County,” Esther said. “For years, we traveled here from New York to ride horses, but we knew early on that we’d end up living here.”
“People here care about the land and about each other,” Franklin said. “We just want to do our part to keep this area special.”
“And honoring our young people who work hard to get into college is a great way to do that,” Esther added.