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Smile behind the smile

Alex woman flourished as kid’s portrait photographer

By Rachel Barduson

Brenda Lenarz-Struck of Alexandria was 22 when she started her career as a children’s portrait photographer. She quickly grew to love her job and traveled throughout the midwest. Recent photo of Brenda... and the same smile that thousands of children saw as she took their picture. Contributed photo

There’s something about her smile that draws you in immediately. Brenda Lenarz-Struck of Alexandria must’ve known that back in 1976 when she applied for a job as a children’s photographer. Yet, it was the fact that she loved working with children that was the first consideration she listed as to why, then a 22-year-old aspiring career woman, she sought employment at one of the most popular photography studios of that era.

If you have children, and you stood in line at a retail store, or took your child to a permanent portrait studio in the 1970s through the 80s, you might have run into Brenda. Brenda was a “Pixy Pinups” photographer in the P87 photograph studio located in St. Cloud for the 14 years she excelled in her profession as a children’s photographer. If she wasn’t in the studio she was “on call”...called out onto the road as a traveling photographer. This travel brought her to various retail outlets where the company set up shop throughout Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota...and the parents stood in the aisles of the store, waiting for their turn. She took photographs in Wadena, Alexandria, Morris and Brainerd. The parent company was based in Reno, Nevada.

Brenda loved every minute of it and she worked typical retail hours, available every day of the week. 

“I didn’t know a thing about photography but I knew I loved working with children, that’s why I applied for the job. I was everyone’s babysitter.  As it turned out, getting a photographer’s job at a well-known retail photography studio gave me life-long friends, endless stories of taking children’s portraits and years of working in a studio and being ‘on-call’ as a traveling photographer.”

Check your children’s portraits. You might recognize the typical set-up for portraits of that time. “The camera was on a track, so it easily went back and forth toward or away from the child. The first picture shot was the child facing the right, then we had them face the left in what we called ‘the three-quarter  pose’ with that covered beige or blue-carpet bumper for them to lean on, lay on, or prop their younger brother or sister on, and then another pose facing right again,” Brenda said. 

Each photographer had a uniform and a toiletry bag. 

“I was the one and only photographer in the company that had to be ready, in cases of an emergency in staffing and other issues that arose during photo sessions somewhere else other than my regularly-assigned studio location. I had to be ready at the drop of a hat. I chose to do that and I loved it,” she said.

Working as a children’s photographer changed her life. “I was painfully shy before I took the job. I didn’t even go out shopping by myself.” 

Realizing that shyness was something she would have to overcome with this career move,  Brenda soon had a few tricks up her sleeve in getting children to smile and to laugh.

“I was soon making those silly noises that we make, you know...the one where we take a deep breath and blow out through our lips,” she laughed. “I had a box I covered with contact paper, open on each end, and rolled a ball through the box, back and forth, back and forth, catching the ball...playing peek-a-boo and making more silly sounds. It all became pretty natural in a day’s work. The job definitely changed my life.”

Taken with a Polaroid, is Brenda and two of her fellow photographers early in her career. Contributed photo

In 1986, after 10 years with the company, Brenda was promoted and she moved from St. Cloud to Minneapolis. Now was the time she began to travel throughout Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. Although she was the only photographer who traveled, her responsibilities also included coordinating staff in addition to daily photography sessions. She enjoyed the various duties required. There were many benefits to being a part of the company that was changing with a changing world. Kinderfoto, out of Reno, Nevada had the original Pixy Pinups and was sold to National School Studios and that later became Lifetouch.

Brenda’s world had changed too. She and her first husband divorced, so she was on her own and was a single mother. While she was traveling, her folks were available to babysit her son, Bill. Her life journey was right on track. “I had two telephones in my for the studio and one for my own private line. I loved the traveling. I loved what I did.”

As her son grew, Brenda took lots of portraits of him. “I have photos of my son and had most of them hanging on my picture wall in the dining room. A picture wall that is most likely similar to most everyone with children. I took a picture portrait of my son every month during his first year. When we moved from that home the paint on the walls had faded around the frames. I have lots of those picture portraits and tubs of photos, still today. Every single picture brings me so much joy.”

Brenda met Joe Struck while, you guessed it, she was at work. “Joe was the tax manager for all of the Lifetouch Portrait studios. I first saw him at the copy machine and that was it, there was his smile.” Joe and Brenda struck up a conversation, began dating and were married in January of 1992. The couple moved to Alexandria in 2008. Today they enjoy travel and wintering at their newly purchased home in Arizona. They are active members of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Alexandria.

For Brenda, it was a total joy to reminisce about her days as a children’s photographer. “To go through photos, to think about all of the lifelong friends I made, the experience of traveling, how it all changed me from a very shy person to one with confidence. It has been a joy to reflect on all of this.”

That joy is evident as her smile - the smile behind hundreds of thousands of children’s smiles – that tells her story today. Brenda used her special gifts to capture children’s portraits for other parents. She might have been that person who was making the funny noises and catching the ball and playing peek-a-boo as she took portraits of your child. Take a look again at those portraits, with the beige or blue carpeted bumper as your child gazes off to the right or was caught giggling for the camera...or clutching a stuffed animal...or smiling in front of the back drop canvas of springtime blossoming trees or fall leaves or a Christmas tree. Although faded and possibly turning a bit golden yellow...the smiles of hundreds of children continue to be a treasure to Brenda...and to all of us. 


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