You may not have heard of Robin Layton, whose 25-year career includes both fine art photography and Pulitzer Prize–nominated photojournalism, but you have heard of her photographic subjects, which include the likes of Gloria Steinem, Rosie O’Donnell, Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Aniston, and Sarah Jessica Parker. Layton recently spent a week with Winfrey on her ranch on Maui, photographing the island to create fine art for the new spa and retreat that Winfrey has built on the ranch. Then there are the political dignitaries and sports icons that Layton has captured with her Nikon cameras, everyone from President Obama and the king and queen of Qatar to Ken Griffey Jr. And Nikon is so happy with Layton’s image-making abilities they have made her a Nikon ambassador for the United States—one of only 16 photographers to receive this honor.
It all started at home in Richmond, Va. “I used to make scrapbooks as a child with photos I would cut out of magazines,” says Layton. “Then, I started taking photos of rocks, flowers, ducks, etc. When I was 15 years old, I was looking at National Geographic magazine on my couch. As I was flipping through the pages, I said to my mom, who was sitting in the room with me,“I would love to take photos like these.” She said, ‘You know, you can do that for a living, if you want.’ I slammed my hand on the magazine page and said, ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’ I researched the best [photography] school in the country, Ohio University, and was lucky enough to have David Alan Harvey [a National Geographic photographer who lived down the street] mentor me. I never looked back and have enjoyed every moment since.”
“My parents were my biggest fans and my mentors,” she says.“They always encouraged me to follow my dreams. It began with them, and without their unconditional love and support I would not be where I am today.” National Geographic continued to be an influence, as did the fine art photographer Raymond Gehman, known for his majestic and epic landscapes.
Layton shoots both portraits and landscapes, which is unusual for a photographer, and she credits her 16 years as a photojournalist at five different newspapers across the country with giving her wide-ranging skills. “I had to be good at photographing just about anything and everything, in any given light and on deadline,” she says. “Photographing landscapes and doing portraiture are similar in that, as a photojournalist, I capture what is real. For others it may not be, but for me it’s similar, as I look for the inherent energy in all subject matters.”
This training also helped Layton to learn how not be intimidated by her celebrity subjects. “Sometimes I have been intimidated photographing a famous subject. But then my instincts kick in, and I quickly realize that they are just people, too. I just start doing my thing, capturing the moment and the person before me.”
The out lesbian photographer might spend her time behind the lens, but she believes in the power of coming out and being up-front about it.
“My philosophy has always been, be 100 percent yourself and we can change the world by coming out to one person at a time.”
Her latest project, Hoop: The American Dream, contains both landscape or portrait photography. This lush and colorful book is quintessential Americana—basketball hoops and the wildly different settings they belong in—and she hopes these images will “inspire people and children to follow their dreams.
“Ten years ago, a friend of mine sent me some basketball hoop photos he had taken, and I told him that he should do a book, cards, calendars. He wasn’t interested in doing it at all. Years later, I saw a hoop in the snow and decided to take a photo of it. I immediately got the ‘hoop bug.’ I called him right then and asked if he still didn’t want to do it, and if he would he mind if I did. He said,‘Go for it!’“
The project may have taken Layton all around the country, but she still calls Seattle home. That’s where she lives with her partner of six years, Shakti Chen, and their four adopted rescue dogs.
“I travel quite a bit,” says Layton, “but just like the old saying goes, there’s no place like home.”