Food & Culture
Arts: Picture Perfect
Robin Layton is nothing short of a Seattle treasure
By Rachel Gallaher September 22, 2023
Much like capturing the perfect moment on film, photographer Robin Layton’s life is a series of moments that are almost hard to believe. Some would call them coincidences, and others, instances of fate.
Remember that iconic photo of a grinning Ken Griffey sliding across home plate (“The Smile at the Bottom of the Pile”) to clinch the Mariners’ first playoff berth in their history in 1995? That was Layton’s, a young photographer at the old Seattle Post-Intelligencer at the time.
Since then, Layton — a resident of Seattle’s Mount Baker neighborhood — has embarked on a freelance career that has taken her around the globe. She has photographed world leaders and celebrities including Oprah Winfrey and Jennifer Aniston. Life magazine honored her at the tender age of 24 by naming her one of the eight most talented photographers in the United States. At age 33, a photo story she shot for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about runaway teens in downtown Seattle was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Layton, who has a background in photojournalism, now describes herself as a visual artist. She recently published her fifth book, rain, featuring 146 photos shot over many years in places including Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii, Wyoming, China, and Japan. The book explores how rain distorts reality, changes points of view, and affects human relationships.
“It rained for three months in 2022,” Layton recalls. “As a Seattleite, you learn quickly to make peace with the rain. It brings us together whether two people are crowded under an umbrella to stay dry, or a group of friends is ducking into a coffee shop — there’s a connection happening there.”
The pictures in rain are compelling, romantic, and thought provoking. Captured in moments highlighting Layton’s prowess as a photographer, the images create a story that invites the viewer to look closer and question deeper. Previous books include hoop the american dream, a showcase of unique basketball hoops across the country; the lake, featuring 146 photos of Lake Washington; and 12, a look at Seahawks fans.
In the age of social media, when everyone fancies themselves a photographer, Layton n sticks to old-school basics. She has an Instagram (@robinlayton), which is used primarily for promoting work shot on a camera (with the occasional appearance of her two rescue dogs, Cowboy and Georgie).
Layton chuckles as she recalls deciding she wanted to be a professional photographer at age 15 — and then meeting famous National Geographic lensman David Alan Harvey a week later (he mentored her for a few months that summer). She genuinely smiles when describing tapping Seattle on a map as a potential place to live — and getting a job offer at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer within a few days.
By the time she gets around to the story about a connection at the Four Seasons Hotel that led to her photographing jazz saxophonist Kenny G’s 40th birthday party — which would catapult her to shooting celebrities including Oprah, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Russell Wilson — Layton throws up her hands in a half shrug and shakes her head in half disbelief. “I’m very lucky,” she says. “I get to wake up every day and say, ‘What am I going to create today?’”
Anyone who’s spoken with Layton will notice her humility. The openness, the laid-back demeanor, and the habit of quickly returning praise with a genuine compliment might stem from a childhood in Virginia (Southern charm and all that), but coupled with fastidiousness, a curiosity for processes and procedures, and an innately inquisitive nature, Layton’s attributes mark her as a stellar photographer and skilled visual artist.
Getting your portrait taken is a vulnerable and intimate experience, but Layton has seemed to crack the code of interacting with her subjects in a way that puts them at ease and allows them to open up to the camera.
“I have a lot of celebrities who have told me that a picture I’ve taken of them looks the most like them of any they have,” Layton says, “For me, it’s just about making them feel comfortable. I know how it feels to be on the other side of the camera.”
Layton is now an entrepreneur who has created artwork for commercial buildings and private residences, including video art and wallpaper. She also offers a program where at 5% or 10% of the retail price, clients can lease her art. Still, she remains a photographer at heart.
“People will take a picture and tap an app and think it’s something,” Layton says, “but I think skill and talent come from shooting with a camera. I’m not manipulating my work in any way that couldn’t have been done in the darkroom. I hope that being genuine in how you work will always prevail.”
If anyone knows genuine, it’s Layton. “Everything I’ve done in the past 10 years is a labor of love,” she says. It was her mother’s death in 2007 that set Layton on the path to pursuing her passion of fine art. “At that moment, I said to myself, ‘Why am I waiting? Life is so precious.’”
From there, she started creating mixed-media collages, combining her photography with found objects: everything from old traffic lights and 1920s-era wooden doors to Midwestern barn vents. Hers is a voracious creativity driven by the need to capture the world around her. In addition to the books and fine art pieces, Layton has collaborated with high-end rug company Driscoll Robbins to create a custom rug line featuring her work.
When it comes down to it, much of Layton’s career is driven by relationships — both personal and professional. On Nov. 18, she will join guitarist and friend Todd Boston on stage at Benaroya Hall for a book talk and concert event — the latter half will see Boston performing in front of projected images from rain.
“As an artist, every new subject I explore is exciting,” Layton says. “Finding new and creative ways to express and produce my art opens up new avenues.”