Scoring a “10”
An Interview with Lewis Payton

10front_trI've been showcasing the work of photographer Lewis Payton on Towleroad for a couple of years now. I met Lewis in my past life as a magazine editor and since then we've become good friends. I first knew him as a talented writer, but it has been a pleasure watching him grow into his own as a photographer.

Lewis has just launched 10, a limited edition set of ten of his iconic male images. Many of the shoots the images were taken from were first featured here on Towleroad.

So today, I'm pleased to offer you an interview with the man behind the extremely sexy images of Billy Bean, Jeff Wilson, Rusty Joiner and others I've featured on the site every few months.

Folks are often curious about how photographers work, so Lewis answers plenty of questions about how he got into photography, how he makes his models comfortable, how he "negotiates" nudes, and if and when he's ever succumbed to the sexiness of one of his own subjects.

Today is the first day that 10 is available on his website, and it's a limited edition, so get it while it's hot!

Well, it'll always be hot, it just won't always be available.


Tell me about 10

I was working on my first coffee table book of male nudes. I’d been shooting it for a little over a year and while taking some time off in Australia, I decided my first book should be broader in scope. I don’t see beauty in just one gender, age or cultural group. But I had enough beautiful male nudes for a book, and I didn’t want them to just gather dust. So I came up with the idea for 10, a collection of ten prints, my favorite male nudes, in one package. I chose ten images that reflect my ideas of masculinity and sensuality. I try to capture both virility and vulnerability in my male nudes and these ten images are a varied interpretation of that theme.

Lewis_payton_1Why 10?

It’s an iconic number, it denotes perfection. I wanted a limited number of prints in the collection, so it fit the bill. I’m the kind of person who likes a small but perfect meal rather than a huge buffet. There’s so many books out there with a handful of stunning images and then a lot of superfluous filler. I just took out the filling. Think of this as my degustation menu!

How did you choose the images?

I rejected so many images I love because they were too similar in style or theme. If it were a book, that wouldn’t be such a problem, but I wanted each of the ten images to be unique in some way. Obviously all of the models in the shots are physically gorgeous, but they all have very different personalities and energy and I think the images reflect that. The cover model, Ryan Daharsh, is like a living greek statue. I have never seen a more perfect body. I tried to capture that perfection with the cover image. It’s distant, heroic, perfect. The final image of him is a total contrast – intimate, vulnerable, very sensual, almost feminine. Both images have these wonderful lines and forms to the body, yet such different emotional content. I love these images, and not only for their aesthetic value. I deliberately chose shots of models who I loved working with because I want to be able to look back at my first collection and see positive associations.

Do you have a favorite?

I couldn’t pick a favorite, but I’m constantly asking everyone else to lately. No one ever picks the same one, so I must’ve done something right.

Who are your influences?

I draw on a lot of different sources outside of photography, but in terms of photographers, my earliest influences were Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber. Both Herb and Bruce’s work defined my sexual awakening. I’ll never forget coming across Herb’s famous ‘Fred With Tires’ image in a poster shop in the small town I grew up in. I was 17 and the image stopped me in my tracks. I was sneaking looks so no one in the store would brand me as gay, but I couldn’t believe that there was a real guy out there who looked like that model. At that moment I made it one of my life’s missions to find out where people who looked like that lived! Herb Ritts had such flawless technique. His death was real a loss for the world.

Who are your favorite current photographers?

In addition to Bruce, I love the work of James Houston, an Australian who makes his home in the US. James captures the sculptural human form like no other photographer. He has become one of the top commercial photographers in New York and his nudes are just gorgeous works of art. David LaChapelle’s work is magical. His creativity and vision inspires me to become more dynamic with my own work. He’s just a true visionary in the field. And Tony Duran has the innate ability to make anyone look sexy.

Why did you decide to become a photographer?

Images01_07A number of reasons, including a good dose of fate. I have a long history working with imagery. I was a film major for the first two years of college and when I worked in advertising, I coordinated countless photo shoots. I always wanted to grab the camera and take the photos myself! Then, in the late 90’s, I shot a number of documentaries which I think really trained my eye to the lens. In late 2002, I was working full time as a freelance journalist and I lost a job because they wanted a words and picture deal and I didn’t have any images to give them. I vowed as my new year’s resolution to buy a 35 mm camera and teach myself to shoot stills properly. One morning, I took a few candid shots of a buddy of mine, and his girlfriend, a very successful model, saw them and asked me to shoot her for her portfolio. I agreed, although I thought she was going to be very disappointed. But the shoot actually went really well and I could see that I had captured something in her shots, a softness and sweetness, that was totally missing from her book. That’s how it started. She introduced me to some other models and before long all I had time for was photography. I moved to LA soon after and never looked back.

Is it difficult to keep your focus surrounded by so many beautiful men, especially when they are naked?

I get this question more than any other. Honestly, it’s dead easy. I am so focused during a shoot that nothing intrudes on that. Once I’m editing, that’s another story. I will look through proofs and be like ‘Whoa, that’s smoking hot!’

So you never get turned on during a shoot?

There’s moments sometimes where you are aware of a sexual tension in the air, but I work that into the picture instead of acting on it. As soon as you step over that line, the images reflect that. I am much more interested in capturing emotional intimacy and sensuality than overt sexuality.

JoinerWhy the focus on men?

Initially, it was about money and lack of connections. I moved to LA and was broke and knew no one. Shooting girls takes a team, stylists, makeup etc. With guys you just need good hair and very little else. That’s also how I came to shoot so many nudes. I couldn’t find stylists I liked, so I just got rid of the clothes! Again, a little premeditation, a little circumstance and it all worked out in the end. I love women though and at the end of the day I prefer shooting women. It’s much more fun and creative.

Who would you most like to shoot and why?

I want to shoot so many different things and people. In terms of fashion, I get to work with pretty much whomever I want. In terms of celebrities, I would very much like to capture Gael Garcia Bernal. He has a face as beautiful as it is interesting. Meryl Streep is a dream subject of mine.

How have blogs and the internet changed the way you shoot and promote your work?

I credit the web for much of my success. Because I moved to the US with virtually no professional contacts, I had to take different paths when developing my career. So I deliberately created a website with many more images than most photographers have, so that people would get a true sense of my work, even if they weren’t seeing it in every second magazine. I read an article about comedian Dave Chappelle and how his team used the internet to market him and the first series of his show. Even though it was just this small show on Comedy Central, they developed such a huge profile for him on the web that when his DVD came out it broke all sales records and totally shocked the industry. I took that on board very early on and the web has been incredibly kind to me in return. Especially Towleroad!

How do you set the mood on a shoot? Do you play music?

I make a pot of tea and sit and chat with the models. I’m like a 34 year old grandmother! My shoots are the opposite of glamorous, but I’m not setting out to intimidate. I love music, but I find it really distracting when I’m shooting. That said, if I’m trying to capture something specific, it can really help to set the mood.

How do you negotiate nudes?

Images02_23When you’re working with established models, it’s no big deal. They have all done them and know what they are all about. If I’m planning on it for a shoot, it’s one of the first questions I ask when casting and if someone has a problem with it, I don’t push it. It’s not worth it, as it will show in the final image if the model is uncomfortable.

How do straight models feel about being in gay magazines?

If they are with a respected agency, they are well aware that it is the one of the best launching pads for a modeling career. Huge exposure. But guys from the Midwest who are just getting started tend to be extremely uncomfortable and threatened by it. So it’s best to work through agents and let them educate their models.

Many photographers have worked in other media, like La Chappelle and Weber. Do you have any ambitions outside of photography?

Definitely. I started in film and I’ve got some projects to develop. I haven’t been writing much in the past couple of years, so I plan on making that a priority in the near future.

Talk about the 10 tour…

It’s basically an excuse to party around the world! I’ll be showing large format versions of the 10 prints in ten iconic cities – Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Sydney, Cape Town, London, Berlin, Paris, Tokyo and Rio. I’ve never been to Cape Town or Tokyo so I’m really looking forward to those cities.

What’s next?

I’ve got the LA and Sydney launches for 10, then I take the exhibition on the road. I’m looking forward to returning to my photojournalism roots and further expanding the scope of my work. I’ll still be doing my commercial work, but I’m very excited to explore some new avenues. Hoping for a day or two on a beach somewhere along the way.

Check out Lewis Payton’s site to find out how to get your very own limited edition of 10.

Some of our Lewis Payton collection
Billy Bean Like You’ve Never Seen Him [tr]
Brandon Mackay by Lewis Payton [tr]
Bumper Crop of Beauty: a DNA Preview [tr]
Exclusive Preview: Survivor Palau’s Jeff Wilson [tr]
The New Paul [tr]
Winter Visions: Part 3 [tr]
Midwestern Prime [tr]
Heat Wave: Cooling Off [tr]