How does a self-taught Brisbane photographer land a role as the personal snapper for legendary Hollywood actor and Mary Poppins star Dick Van Dyke?
Fortuitously, according to Los Angeles-based Aussie Laura Johansen.
In 2015, Ms Johansen — who hails from Coorparoo in Brisbane’s inner south-east — was doing a photo shoot in Malibu, across from where an exhibition on Van Dyke was in its final hours.
“I walked inside and Dick Van Dyke was there,” the 39-year-old told ABC Radio BNE.
“And I was like, ‘What?’ It was just him and his wife.
“It was literally the last hour of the last day of the exhibit. I had no idea he would be there.”
With her camera in hand, the photographer stepped in to help someone from the Malibu Playhouse who was trying to take a photo of the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang lead.
“I said, ‘Look, I have my good camera here. I could take some photos and you’re welcome to use them if you’d like,'” Ms Johansen said.
“So, I took a bunch of pictures and they went viral, and [Van Dyke and his wife] were like, ‘These are amazing. What are you doing Thursday?'”
It has been a gig that’s kept the mother-of-two steadily occupied ever since.
“He’s incredible to capture,” Ms Johansen said.
“He’s always got a spring in his step and a song in his heart.
“Walt Disney could not have picked a better cast for Mary Poppins.
“He’s equally as quirky and warm and fun and as magical as Bert from Mary Poppins.”
However, it was another silver-screen star who initially led Ms Johansen to move from Brisbane to the US after she finished school.
In 1998, Ms Johansen created a website on American actress Lucie Arnaz — the daughter of I Love Lucy star Lucille Ball — for a Year 12 assignment at Lourdes Hill College in Hawthorne.
“My dad was like, ‘This is kind of nice. Why don’t you publish it?'” Ms Johansen said.
Within 24 hours of the website going live, the American actress discovered the page and contacted Ms Johansen.
“She was like, ‘What is this? Who are you? Where did this come from?'” the photographer said.
“[I said] ‘You were never supposed to see this. I’m in grade 12 in Australia’.
“She loved it. She said, ‘This is really sweet. Let me know if you have any interest in pursuing it. I’d love to help you along and make this official.'”
With the actress’ encouragement, Ms Johansen kept working on the website, teaching herself how to code and design while travelling to the US to spend time with Arnaz.
“I did a science degree at the University of Queensland, but I would be jetting off every now and then to New York to do these things with her,” Ms Johansen said.
‘Thrown in the deep end’
While the then UQ student was completing her education prac at Brisbane Girls Grammar, she was tasked with teaching photography — another skill she would first have to teach herself.
“I had never touched a DSLR or SLR camera in my life,” she said.
“I was thrown in the deep end and it was great.”
Through Arnaz, Ms Johansen met her first husband, Jimmy Garret, who played Jerry Carmichael in The Lucy Show.
The couple, since divorced, had married in Brisbane and moved to Los Angeles, where Ms Johansen worked in television and film production and, later, in photography.
Ms Johansen, who remarried in 2019, said her photography role meant she could spend more time with her young family.
Capturing the ‘magic’ of Van Dyke
After working with Van Dyke for a number of years, Ms Johansen said the 95-year-old had never showed any signs of slowing down.
“He does a few concerts and shows and he has a barbershop quartet that he performs with … and he also has an orchestra that he performs with,” she said.
Ms Johansen said Van Dyke was able to connect with everyone, from toddlers to presidents, and recalled something that happened at the Kennedy Center Honors at the White House earlier this month.
“Surrounded by the most glamorous glamour you can imagine, everything is so glitzy and beautiful, red carpets everywhere, photographers everywhere,” she said.
“And I see him, out of the corner of his eye, spy a little, 18-month-old toddler and she sees him and he stops what he’s doing.
“He gets down and she makes a little ‘oh’ sound at him and he does it back to her.
“She starts jumping and he starts jumping and then she starts dancing and he starts dancing back at her.
“They have this whole conversation without words.”
Ms Johansen said it was her job to capture the magic that the actor brought to those around him.
“People come up to him and tell him how much he meant to them … and he’s so sweet and humble and he always takes time to spend that quality time with them, to make them feel like their memories are really important as well.