"Just do work that you love doing," said Laita, a world-renowned photographer who graduated from Columbia in 1983. "Don't try to figure out what people like. Figure out what you like, and the world will respond. It will either resonate or not."
Laita used his own advice on a career path that's led him to publishing many photography books, including his latest, "Serpentine," a book focusing on the world's venomous and non-venomous snakes that the New York Times called "stark and stunning."
Laita's professional career began in the Windy City.
His first gig was shooting advertorial photos for the late Curtis Kulp, who had a Downtown studio at 222 W. Ontario St. Laita also took photos of Chicago rock concerts and pictures of homeless people on Madison Street on the West Side.
"When I started out in Chicago, I just wanted to take pictures and pay the bills, and things have changed a lot since then," Laita said.
Laita, 53, left for Los Angeles one year after graduating from Columbia, and his current studio is in Culver City, Calif.
To shoot the snakes for "Serpentine," Laita had handlers place the serpents on black velvet. Of the venomous snakes, only the king cobra required extra protection. The cobra was placed in a four-by-four Plexiglas case during the photo shoot.
Laita's favorite photos in the book are of the Philippine pit viper because of its "unusual color combination of chartreuse and magenta."
"Kind of fond of that one," Laita said.
Laita said he returns to Chicago three or four times per year. His parents and sister still live in the suburbs, and he also has advertorial assignments here.
Laita said his daily commutes Downtown before and during college were a "wonderful" learning experience.
"It was a great environment to grow up in," Laita said. "It wasn't overpowering and overbearing like New York would have been. That combination of Chicago being a world-class city as well as having the suburban environment — the two helped expose me to photography on a higher level."