Bayou Artist | Benicia King
article by Starla Gatson
photography by Kelly Moore Clark
Entrepreneurship and creativity run in Benicia King’s family. King’s maternal grandfather, Robert Cornwell, was a reverend, photographer, and musician in Grambling. But he wasn’t the only creative or ambitious Cornwell; other members of this — one of the Lincoln parish town’s original families, King says — made a living working as tailors, farmers, and restaurant owners. The Cornwells’ entrepreneurial spirit trickled down the family tree’s branches until it reached King’s mother, a Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising graduate who owns and operates a clothing design and alteration business.
Take one look at King’s profile on networks like Instagram and LinkedIn, peruse her portfolio on her website, or take a look at the products she sells in her online store, and you’ll see that, much like those who came before her, she is both artistic and business-minded; there’s no denying it. Not that King is trying to — she’s embraced these seemingly hereditary traits since her youth.
She has found ways to make her interests profitable since she was a child selling handmade scarves to her classmates and through a local shop. And judging by the Future Business Leaders of America club emerging business leader awards she racked up in high school, King was good at it.
It’s safe to say Seattle-born, Grambling-raised King is still good at it, as she makes a living through her brand 9ëfer, a conglomerate of the things she is passionate about. One of those passions is photography, and it has been for most of her life.
She explains her childhood home had plenty of photo albums, each filled with images of family events or documenting her ancestors’ cross-country moves during the Great Migration period, remembering, “I was really inspired by the photography I was seeing.”
Since her mother was a fashion designer, she kept plenty of fashion magazines around. A young King drew inspiration from the photo spreads in those, too. She was so enthralled by the images she saw, both editorial- and documentary-style, that she decided to pursue photography post-high school.
“My family said, ‘If you’re going to go to college, do something you’re passionate about,’” King explains. “And I was like, ‘OK, I’m passionate about photography.”
Though it was what she decided to study, King confesses that photography wasn’t her first career aspiration, “At first I wanted to be a vet; I really liked animals at the time. But then, I got into biology and said, ‘I don’t think so.’” She laughs before adding, “But [photography] being something I always knew I wanted to do and having family backing put it all together.”
With her heart set on commercial photography, the then 18-year-old left north Louisiana — the local universities weren’t teaching many commercial photography practices at the time, she explains — and headed to her birthplace: Seattle.
King’s undergraduate studies began at The Art Institute of Seattle, a commercial-based school where she took courses in subjects like lighting and product photography. After a few months, she transferred to Seattle Central College to learn more about art history and culture.
The aspiring photographer only spent a year at Seattle Central before switching schools again. This time, though, she was going more than a few minutes down the road. At her grandfather’s request, she relocated to sunny California — “My grandmother had passed away, and [he] wanted me to be there with him,” King explains — and resumed her education at the University of Southern California.
The move to California not only gave King precious time with her grandfather before his passing, it also sent her photography career in a new direction. While in the Evergreen State, King directed much of her energy into learning the ins and outs of commercial photography. But in California, she became more interested in fine art photography, a category much of her current work falls into.
King’s fine art photos explore multiple topics, including masculinity, culture, self or internal dialogue, family dynamics, and spirituality (she even did a project on church attire inspired by her family’s religious background). While those subjects still inform her work, King says she’s exploring a wider variety of areas so she doesn’t pigeonhole herself.
“I’m still figuring out what I’m talking about,” she admits. “There are a lot of changes going on; I have to go through the experience first and figure out what I want to say.”
She may still be “figuring out what she’s talking about,” but the entries on her curriculum vitae reveal that so far, her work has done a good job of saying what she intended thus far. At just 29 years old, she has already found quite a bit of success in her field, not just as a fine art photographer, but in editorial and documentary-style photography, too.
King’s photos have been shown at venues including the Masur Museum, New Orleans African American Museum, and the Stella Jones Gallery. She has shot Fashion Week in Italy, was awarded the Fine Arts Club of Pasadena’s Visual Arts Award in 2019, and publications including Vogue and VoyageLA have spotlighted her. You may have even seen King’s name in an issue of BayouLife, as she was mentioned in an article on the Black Creative Circle in November 2021.
She admits her professional achievements have been surprising, and even though she’s worked in the industry as a photographer and photo editor, for more than a decade now, King says it still catches her off guard when people recognize her or her photographs.
“I always had ideas of traveling for work and seeing what that’s like, but I never knew my stuff would be in Vogue, I’d be editing for other photographers, or I’d be in exhibitions,” she says. “I’m constantly surprised and happy.”
But don’t be fooled, she warns. Her career isn’t only high points, she says, adding, “There’s also rough times, too. It’s not [like I’m] being featured in stuff all the time. It’s a well-rounded experience.”
Though a big part, photography is not the only component of her “well-rounded experience,” and it’s not the only thing that falls under the umbrella of her brand, 9ëfer. Creating natural beauty products is also a passion of King’s and has been since she was a student at USC and began making her own hair products to use.
“My family’s really into herbs and farming; we used to have a big farm back in the day,” King explains. “That inspires me in the beauty aspect, keeping up the use of natural herbs, natural products, and focusing on a healthy body in terms of what we put onto it.”
While spending a summer in Louisiana, a hairdresser, impressed with King’s hair, encouraged her to sell her products. By the time she returned to USC in the fall, she was ready to act on that suggestion.
“There was an entrepreneurship minor, and I used that to focus on the target market and develop a brand,” she recalls. “Then, I started doing pop-ups at the farmer’s markets out here.”
King withdrew from USC just before the COVID-19 pandemic began and moved back home to Louisiana. Here in the Pelican State, she finished her undergraduate degree at Grambling State University and focused her efforts on building her beauty brand, testing out the customer market through local pop-ups, and developing it visually.
“People think building beauty products happens overnight [because people like] Lori Harvey can just pull out a brand,” she says. “That’s not how it works.”
Making and selling 9ëfer-branded products has been a lengthy process, but one she’s grateful for, as it helped her develop skills and tools she could integrate into her photography business. It’s also given her time to ponder other potentially profitable interests she could incorporate into her brand.
She assures BayouLife that whatever she adds to her résumé next will offer a unique point-of-view, something she feels is necessary, especially here in the south.
“There are some developments I’m working on for the beauty products right now,” she reveals. “I eventually want to have some sort of event space and some type of food delivery service. [There are] just a lot of things that are important to culture and community shift. There are things we should be focusing on more. That’s what readers can expect from me: a different perspective on things.”
And, of course, there will be photos — photography is one thing King says she will always produce. Some of her work is on display at this article’s time of writing as part of Seeing Black Photography and the Ashé Cultural Arts Center’s exhibition, “In the Spirit of Black.” The show, which runs through May 27th, features both well-known and emerging photographers and depicts black life, self-expression, culture, spirituality, remembrance, and futurity in a variety of styles and approaches.
What King will do after this exhibition, however, we will have to wait and see, paying a close eye to her Instagram profiles (@kingbenicia and @9efer) and website, www.beniciaking.com, for announcements regarding her latest projects.