Rfotofolio is pleased to share the work of Laszlo Layton.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I grew up surrounded by the unique beauty of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. It informed my interest in nature and in the natural sciences. I always excelled in art, but that was definitely secondary to my love of zoology. Being a life-long insomniac I was also greatly influenced by motion pictures which I would stay up late to watch on television–always fascinated by my Mother’s vast knowledge of the movies and the actors who appeared in them. She would always provide fascinating back story to whatever old movie we were watching. With adolescence came a waning interest in animals and the intensifying lure of Hollywood. I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the motion picture industry where I worked for over twenty years at Columbia Pictures. Wanting to include my love of art in my life, I took an intensive course in makeup at the Institute of Studio Makeup and had a brief stint as a makeup artist. I realized early on that I was not very well suited to the pre-dawn working hours of that profession. The confidence that I gained from that experience as an artist led me directly to painting and photography. And that, in turn, led me full circle back to my love of natural history. I am also very proud of my work as a theatrical stage manager, thanks to my partner who is a wonderful director, actor and choreographer.
How did you get started photography?
I was fortunate to attend public schooling at a time when there was still quite of bit of funding for the arts. I learned all the darkroom basics in grade school and in high school. Being an autodidact, I continued with my own education, purchasing photo technique books like, Designing a Photograph by Bill Smith, and On Color and Design by Joy and Al Satterwhite. I bought myself the very first generation of Canon EOS 35mm SLR, and rolls of Kodachrome 25 and Fuji Velvia. I never took my photography seriously as an art, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I was always way too intimated by all the technical jargon and exactitude of professional photography, and so, ultimately, shot photographs as a means toward painting. I painted landscapes for a number of years based off of my photographs taken on hikes through nature.
The turning point in my art career, and my switch to using photography as my primary medium, came about in 1996 while on one of my frequent visits to Hennessey + Ingalls Art & Architecture bookstore in Santa Monica, California. Being an avid book collector, I would purchase artist monographs for inspiration and for their own object beauty. I’d sometimes take a passing glance at the photography books there as well. One day I was particularly taken by a book which featured a mysterious blue cover image of a lone man standing waist deep in a body of water. That book, Lengthening Shadows Before Nightfall, by John Dugdale, contained no text, only beautifully reproduced photographs–all blue, printed on heavy off-white matte paper. I purchased the book and wrote to the gallery representation listed inside to find out more about the artist and the art. This led me to discover the artistic community using alternative and antiquarian photographic processes to express their contemporary vision. In turn, this lead me back in time to the Pictorialist movement at the turn of the 20th century. This photography all looked so unique and hand-crafted, rather than technically precise and cold. I was hooked! It would take me another six years before I would create my first art photograph.
Which photographers and other artist work do admire?
F. Holland Day, Darren Waterston, Alexis Rockman, Mark Innerst, John Dugdale, Gustave Baumann, Walton Ford, Joan Nelson, George H. Seeley, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Peter Beard, Todd Oldham, Sally Mann, Donald Roller Wilson, Masao Yamamoto, April Gornik, Clarence White, Martin Johnson Heade, Ed Mell, John James Audubon, Robert Graham, Maxfield Parrish, Herb Ritts, Kiki Smith, John Beerman, Andrea Modica, Walt Disney, Mayme Kratz, Andy Warhol, Thomas Moran, J. M. W. Turner, Don Hong-Oai, Georgia O’Keeffe, SHAG, Albrect Durer, Gertrude Kasebier, Laddie John Dill, James McNeil Whistler, Bruce Weber, Cy Twombly, Thomas Molesworth, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Dale Chihuly, John Frederick Kensett, Mike & Doug Starn, Michael Lynch, Agnes Martin, Raymond Ching, Jack Pierson, Mark Catesby, Edward Steichen, Frida Kahlo, Matt Smith, Jayne Hinds Bidaut, John Kirby, Charles R. Knight, Anne Coe, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Flanary, Tom Baril, the (1946) movie Gilda, and the Hawaiian Music always playing in my studio while I work.
And what about their work inspires you?
Beauty–pure and simple. Composition. Light. Mood. Originality. A great picture, no matter the medium used, has that wonderful power to draw you back, time and again, to pause and look upon it. There must be something chemical going on in the brain when you gaze upon a great work of art. It feels good and its addicting, like a narcotic. How cool is that?
Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you overtime?
George H. Seeley’s, “Winter Landscape” (1909). I love the abstracted landscape–distilled to its essential elements. I love it in painting, but don’t see it as often in photography. This Seeley image captures a bold positive/negative space so beautifully, and the print itself is fairly large and masterfully executed. It reminds me of Albert Pinkham Ryder’s painting.
If no one saw your work, would you still create it?
Absolutely. No surprise there. My Pictorial Zoology series started out purely for my own enjoyment. I had no representation or resume to speak of. I wanted to photograph the rare and exotic birds from the Burnham-Eagle-Macomber collection of wildlife and artifacts that I remembered viewing as a child at the State Fair in Arizona.
Please tell us about your process and what the perfect day of photography is for you.
I love the hands-on printing processes. There’s quite a bit of tedium involved though. Lots of prep work and post clean up. My process has been mostly cyanotype based. I work in stages, so one day (or night) is devoted to a single stage in the printmaking process. First comes the paper cutting and mixing of the solutions. Then comes a day of sensitizing and drying papers. Printing from the negatives is either a great day, or a day of frustration, as the results are always so unpredictable. I mainly use a large printing box lined with high intensity UV lights and a vacuum sealed contact printing frame. Next would be toning–usually baths of sodium carb and tannic acid to tone the cyanotype prints to varying degrees and colors. This can be followed by another toning session of previously toned or untoned cyanotypes in baths of tea to add some additional warmth. At this point some of the prints are finished as far as appearance, while others are culled for hand-coloring. Coloring on prints is done with any single or combination of watercolors, pastels and raw pigments. Lastly, all the completed prints are marked with ink calligraphy and signed. I guess the closest thing to a perfect day for me is when I’m getting good consistent results.
What challenges do you face as a photographer?
There are so many challenges, but what first comes to mind is access, money and creative freedom. I have experienced disappointments when I’ve been denied access to collections that I would have loved to be able to photograph. When there is no alternative you have to let it go and move on to something else. Lately I seem to be formulating creative ideas that come with a pretty hefty budget to bring to fruition–especially when it involves travel or new equipment purchases. The tools and supplies of an artist, which need constant replenishment, are usually expensive. Art is an expensive endeavor. And success too comes with a price. It can slow down and stall creative evolution. When an artist creates something that achieves success, it is expected that you will repeat that success by offering something new, so long as it’s more of the same. I have much admiration for artists who can reinvent themselves and still remain successful.
With the rapid changes in how people make and view a photograph how do you view this time in the history of photography?
It feels like a very pioneering time again–much like it was 175 years ago when photography was in its infancy. What’s interesting to me is witnessing the extent to which these “rapid changes” will replace what has gone before. Will these changes be counteracted by the re-discovery and use of older photographic processes, or are they doomed to extinction?
How do you over come a creative block ?
So far that hasn’t been a problem. In fact, I have more creative ideas formulated in my head than I will probably ever be able to develop. My artistic blocks all seem to be technical in nature rather than creative.
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
I will sometimes have a tendency to view things more two dimensionally. Compressed and cropped. Not sure if that’s a result of my art or not.
Please tell us about your book.
The book is a dream come true, and a beautiful representation of 10 years of work. I could not be more proud of the result. My agent, Peter Fetterman, had been trying to get a book of my photographs published since my first show with him in 2004. It finally happened with Chris Pichler of Nazraeli Press in 2012. I was invited to spend three days working with Chris at Nazraeli in Portland, Oregon, to help edit and sequence the photographs. Chris and I worked wonderfully together and were very like-minded in all of our decision making.
I was given much more creative input in the book’s design than I had anticipated. The one adamant request that Chris made of me was that I hand write the book title on the cover image. He indulged my request for using a rich purple silk material for the cover, which was my homage to the era of the Pictorialist salons–with their exhibition galleries lined in silk fabric wainscoting. The color purple was a nod to the purple velvet that lines the lens caps of the vintage Pinkham & Smith soft-focus lenses used by the Pictorialists, and by myself. Chris said that he knew exactly which paper he wanted to use for printing the book from the moment he saw my photographs. A gorgeous matte Japanese paper that he uses for his Michael Kenna monographs. All of the photographs are matte varnished to capture the soft surface of the original prints, and they are reproduced full-scale at 10.5 x 13.5 inches. When the galley proofs were forwarded to me from China to evaluate, I was amazed at how accurate the reproductions looked. I had never seen my prints that accurately reproduced. My only disappointment is that the book has sort of flown under the radar. It was released in late December, missing out on the yearly book critiques. I’m still hopeful that it will find its audience.
What is on the horizon for you?
Many irons are in the fire. The most immediate is a series I am calling Double Elephant. It is an old English term for the largest sheet size of uncut book and drawing paper, generally measuring 26.5 x 40 inches. It is perhaps most notable for being the paper size used in the well-known first edition double elephant folio of Audubon’s Birds of America. My prints in this series measure 30 x 40 inches and are a hybrid of analog and digital. The images are from my Pictorial Zoology negatives. Included will be some of my best known images, alternate versions, lesser known images, and never before printed images. I am also in development on a series titled Raptor which includes many species of eagles, hawks, owls and other birds of prey.
Thank you, Laszlo for sharing you work and words. We look forward to seeing your future work.
His book may be purchased at, Photo Eye.