Artistically Speaking: Penny Knobel-Besa - Capturing Memories

Last Updated on Jun 6, 2016 at 3:34pm | Arts & Culture

"Artistically Speaking" is a regular feature of The Lake-Front magazine, in cooperation with the Garrett County Arts Council, and is being reprinted here in its entirety with permission. This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue.
Penny Knobel-Besa is a fine art photographer who prefers to capture unique images of everything from street scenes to detailed portraiture. She began taking photographs in 1982 when she traveled cross country from her former home in Baltimore all the way to California and back. She purchased a 35mm Canon camera with a telephoto lens to document her journey; capturing images on 25 rolls of film. Along the way, she fell in love with photography.
After returning from her travels, Knobel-Besa’s friends were rather impressed with her photos, prompting her to pursue photography as an art form rather than just a hobby. She took a photography class at Loyola College and after the instructor gave a positive review on her work, she felt encouraged to continue with this new passion. She furthered her studies in photography, including private lessons with noted photographer Benita Keller. She also joined the Antietam Photographic Salon where she received helpful tips and won her first blue ribbon.
Knobel-Besa is drawn to capturing images of everyday happenings rather than typical pretty and scenic photos, but admits that some scenery is too irresistible not to photograph. “I am drawn to black and white but love splashes of color and warm tones,” states the artist. Before digital photography, Knobel-Besa carried two cameras. One contained a roll of B&W film while the other held color. She declares that images would “scream out” helping her decide which camera to grab. Even now that she primarily works with digital photography, she still carries two cameras. Being a candid photographer, one of her cameras always has a telephoto lens so that she does not lose valuable time switching lenses.
Before beginning her career as a photographer, Knobel-Besa worked in the performing arts for more than 30 years as an actress, playwright, director, and producer. She produced and directed Under Your Pillow, an Off-Broadway children’s musical in New York City, for which she wrote the script and seven songs. In 1995, Knobel-Besa met with key community leaders of Allegany County who asked her to do a children’s theatre project. She agreed and moved her Baltimore-based Maryland Theatre Arts Company to Cumberland. This eventually evolved into a theatre arts academy until she retired in 1998 to pursue photography. The Maryland Theatre Arts Company continues to operate under a new director, providing free theatre experiences for youth. Knobel-Besa still dabbles in the theatrical arts now and again, holding classes and recently directing a play as a fundraiser for her church.
To begin her photography career, Knobel-Besa gave herself three months to build a body of photographic work. She achieved this by traveling and camping all over the United States and Canada by herself. While on this journey, she photographed and interviewed everyday people including women in laundromats, oil men working in Alaska, and aspiring performers trying to make it to the big time. She thought about writing a book featuring the people she had interviewed and photographed, calling it Dirty Laundry. However, a new title came when a gas station attendant in Hollywood asked her, “Are you anybody I should know?” and she said “Not yet.” Knobel-Besa thought that may be the perfect title for a book about people that nobody knows.
Since discovering her passion for photography, Knobel-Besa has received many awards for her work. One of her greatest honors came in 1991 when she was named Maryland Photographer of the Year by the Maryland You Are Beautiful Program. Maryland Governor Schaefer presented the award which was a cash prize and dinner on his personal yacht with fifteen of the artist’s friends.
When asked what inspires her, Knobel-Besa replied, “Photography is about the light. When it’s making golden light or interesting shadows, it can be a magic moment. Just seeing a moment unfold that you want to preserve in a photograph; inspiration can strike that quickly.”
As stated earlier, Knobel-Besa primarily uses digital photography these days and has studied Adobe Photoshop at Allegany College to help enrich her photos. However, she prefers to present her images exactly as her camera captures them. Of the forty images hanging in her main gallery, only two have been manipulated. When she does alter a photo, it is usually to enhance the focal point or remove distractions.
Today’s photographers have a broad spectrum of options for printing their images including on metal, wood and canvas. Though she tends to be more traditional, Knobel-Besa does enjoy the way canvas makes her photos look more like paintings, something she has always strived to do.
Since 1991, Knobel-Besa’s artwork has appeared in several solo exhibitions, some even in Europe. Locally, her work has been featured at galleries in Garrett, Allegany, and Washington counties. The artist shares a woodland gallery called Sanctuary Studios near her home in the Flintstone area, where she resides with husband and fellow artist Hilmar Gottesthal.
Knobel-Besa also offers “Art of Photography” workshops and private lessons at her studio. Those interested in learning more should contact her at 301-478-2735 or
Both Knobel-Besa and Gottesthal are members and participating artists of Garrett County Arts Council. You too can support arts programming throughout Garrett County by becoming a GCAC member. For more information, contact 301-334-6580 or visit