The SuperSonics may be long gone, but basketball passion still burns bright in the hearts of many Seattleites, including photographer Robin Layton. Her love of the sport led her to travel the country shooting famed hoops—from Larry Bird's old stomping ground of French Lick, Indiana to the White House—for her new book, Hoop: The American Dream. Stark framing makes Layton’s photographs of seemingly mundane basketball hoops seem impressionistic and almost otherworldly. But this isn't Layton's first go-round with sports photojournalism, as she shot one of Seattle's most iconic sports images — Ken Griffey Jr. being piled on by teammates after the Mariners beat the Yankees in the 1995 playoffs. Layton's first solo show at Winston Wächter—Capturing Energy—combines some of the basketball photos with other pictures that exemplify her knack for catching moments bursting with life. The exhibit opened last week and remains on display at the gallery through February 27.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with Layton about photographic energy, traversing the country in search of hoops, and working without Photoshop.
How did you come up with the idea for Hoop: The American Dream?
I have a friend from college, and he and I decided to stay in touch—this is pre-email days—via taking photographs. We would take personal photos and then make cards out of them, and mail each other cards once a month just to say hi to check in. So about ten years ago, one particular year he sent me about five images that had basketball hoops in them: You know one in front of an old car, one he had taken at a yard sale… and not only I, but anybody I showed them to kinda went crazy for them and said, “Oh my God, these are amazing.” I kept telling him for ten years “You gotta do a book, you’ve gotta do calendars and cards,” and he was like “No, I’m really not interested in doing that.”
So I was out in Ohio on another project a year and a half ago, and I saw a hoop in the snow and I stopped. I actually just put one foot out of the car and kinda leaned out half way and took a picture of it. Well immediately when I clicked it, I got addicted. I got the hoop bug. I called him right then and there and I said, “Listen, remember that project I kept pushing you for ten years to do on basketball hoops?” And he’s like “Yeah.” And I said, “I just took a photo, and if you’re sure you’re not gonna do it and it won’t conflict with our friendship, cause that’s the most important thing, how do you feel about if I did it?” And he’s like, “Oh my gosh, I have no interest in doing it. Go for it and show me how it’s done.” So he gave me his blessing and I just went like a train.
I decided that the only way to really do a book on American hoops is to drive: Go down the back roads, rent a van, and head out. I also thought it would be really cool to find childhood hoops of some of the most revered players and coaches of our time. How cool would that be? To stand under the alters that they played on. And I didn’t want it to be just all quotes and stories, I kinda wanted it to be a coffee table art book/Americana/the childhood hoops of players. I love the subject matter. Taking a round simple object and making each photo different was a challenge as a photographer, and I think that my background as a photojournalist really helped me with that.
What was the process when attempting to find the hoops?
Well a lot of research on the Internet, of course. When we wanted to find Larry Bird’s hoop, we knew it was in French Lick, Indiana, and I saw a picture of somebody in front of it, but you know there’s no date or address, so you hope it’s still there.
Then there was networking through the people that I knew in the business. A couple of my dear friends are basketball players: Michelle Marciniak who played for the Seattle Storm and Karen Bryant at the Storm were instrumental in helping me connect people. I got connected to (broadcaster and former star player) Ann Meyers Drysdale first and she started the whole chain. Rick Barry got on the phone and called me for 45 minutes and was freaking out over the project, and then he hooked me up with Karen West, who’s Jerry West’s wife, and from that point on Karen was like an angel that dropped into my life. She connected me to Shaq and LeBron and all those folks.
To find the hoops I knew that we’d have to go down some back roads and drive across America; you can’t fly city to city, you gotta get in your car. I knew it was a commitment and so I grabbed a friend of mine, who’s an amazing artist in town, and we flew to New York and drove four weeks zigzagging all over. We ended up at the White House, which is another incredible story. It’s impossible to get in the White House, and I can’t believe we pulled that off. We adopted three dogs along the way at a shelter in Atlanta, and drove ten days with three dogs in our van and collected vintage hoops along the way too. We went to 35 states and I shot over 100,000 images. We blogged our trip you know on our website hooptheamericandream.com.
How has Seattle influenced your photography?
You know, when I first moved here, I remember telling people Seattle pulls out art of you that you didn’t know existed. It’s all the nature. One of my favorite things to do is to shoot nature, but not in your normal static way. I like to capture the energy of nature; kind of stay out of its way and let it present itself to me. I think a lot of us get involved with manipulating. I don’t do any Photoshop on my images, it’s all from camera to paper, which I’m very proud of. I think I just try to stay out of the way of whatever I’m shooting and I think Seattle just pulls all that out of me. This is a magical place. I feel like I’m on vacation everyday living here. I think I’m the biggest fan of Seattle, and all the art around town influenced me as far as just making me so excited and inspired. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
If you weren’t a photographer is there another line of work you think you might have pursued?
If I wasn’t a photographer I would dream of being… let’s see… I guess a famous singer or I’d want to be a number one point guard in college or the WNBA. That would be a reach, but those would be two fantasy things.
Are there any up and coming local artists or photographers that you think people should check out?
Yes, Robin Layton. (Laughs.) Come on Seth, you’re supposed to laugh!
Robin Layton: Capturing Energy
Thru Feb 27, Winston Wächter, Free