Reggie Payton: Not Your Average Photographer


Accomplished Photographer/Videographer with More Than Talent

Reggie Payton, the owner and CEO of Payton Studios, has more than just talent. He radiates thirst and vigor through his artistry. He has ingeniously created distinct commercial photography and videography for over 20 years. He’s not afraid to travel worldwide, from the concrete jungle of city centers to the actual jungle of the rain forest, to bring a vision to life. Payton is an originator. So, it is no surprise that his work has graced the pages of world renowned magazines such as Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Shape and Essence. Reggie Payton is a guru in his own right and a talent that all aspiring videographers and photographers should want to meet.

Roots on Chicago’s West Side

The photographer grew up in the North Lawndale area on Chicago’s West Side.  Payton, who happily explains why having both parents in his household made life easier, still mournfully expounds on seeing the decay of urban areas like the west side of Chicago.

“It was a depressed area, [with] gangs, things that just weren’t good for you,” he said about the North Lawndale neighborhood in Chicago.

However, with a stable household and a talent to focus on, gang life was not a part of Payton’s youth. He had talent and at this point, that talent was not photography—just yet.

A Childhood of Musical Accomplishment

“I was in music. The trumpet, percussion,” he said. “I studied trumpet for seven years and I studied percussion for about another seven years.”

Payton played drums throughout high school. Regardless of his talent and love of music, Payton’s father had a dream for the future photographer.  That dream was for Payton to pursue engineering.

Choosing the Factory Over MIT: Short Pursuit of a Father’s Dream

With his intelligence and his father’s wishes, a young Payton considered his life as an engineer.

“I got accepted to IIT and I got accepted to MIT,” he said casually of this amazing accomplishment. “But I did not want to pursue that after I talked to my counselor who told me I wouldn’t be doing anything but studying.”

At this point, Payton abandoned the thought of engineering and music.  Instead, he went to work in the steel mills part-time, where he felt real money could be made at that time. But this as well only lasted for so long.

Quick Good Bye to Manual Labor

While reminiscing, he laughed and said, “I worked there a couple years and realized I never want to do manual labor ever again in my life.”

After exiting his job at the steel mill, Payton decided to attend Triton College, a community college in suburban Chicago. That’s where he first began taking pictures. He soon left Triton to study business and design at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb Illinois. While attending Northern Illinois, his exposure to photography, and even videography, increased. He got an on-campus job doing photography and videography.

Payton Discovers Photography and His Life’s Work

reggie-payton-possible-featureWhile on a field trip at a photographer’s studio, Payton realized he was coming to terms with what he wanted his life’s career to be.

Payton recalls, “This photographer…he happened to be black photographer and I had never seen a black photographer doing commercial work. He was working with Essence and Vogue. He had a nice studio and when I saw his studio, I said ‘this is what I want to do.’”

In his senior year of college the aspiring photographer decided to transfer to Columbia College Chicago where he graduated with a degree in photography. Fresh out of college, he landed a job working doing special effects which he says, is now called Leering and Photoshop.  One year into the job, Payton was making a decent living for himself, but he quit. Why? You might ask. According to the photographer, the owner of the company told Payton that he should just be happy to have a job and decided he would speak vulgarly to him.

“He was cursing everybody out. He had never cursed me out but he decided to curse me out and I didn’t take it.”

Striking Out on His Own

Payton decided he wouldn’t tolerate being disrespected and decided his talent could be used somewhere else—in his own studio.

What his previous boss didn’t know is that he had already begun to develop his own work. Furthermore, he didn’t know that Payton was working on obtaining his own workshop.

“When the owner of the business went off, I said I was done with this and I started working for myself full-time.”

This was the birth of Payton Studios. Unlike some photographers, he knew that he wanted to focus on working for corporations and companies. He wanted to create work for publications and billboards, specifically commercial work.

With fresh talent and his own studio, Payton definitely knew he had to get to work.  He needed clients.

Building His Business with No Plan B

“When I first started out I would go into my studio every morning and I would get on the phone and there were certain periodicals you would get that would have design, ad agencies and corporations’ information,” he said. “At this time, before the internet, you would pick up the phone and I would try to make at least twenty or thirty calls in the morning to see if I could get an appointment.”

For Payton, it was just a matter of calling agencies and corporations continuously. Giving up was not an option because there was no plan B.

“I wasn’t into it thinking this was a short term thing. I knew this was a lifelong goal,” he insisted. “But I just had to bite the bullet.”

Hard Work, Success, and the Jerri Curl

The accomplished artist credited his luck to his diligence, but also to the Jerri Curl he wore then. The hair style was very popular in the 1980’s. Payton eventually landed deals with major companies like Soft Sheen and Luster Products. In addition, almost every other African American hair care company used or wanted to use his work for their business.

“After six months of having my studio,” he said. “I was working with Soft Sheen and it happened to be international.”

His work for Soft Sheen paved the way for him at the other companies. But, by his late twenties, the photographer managed to expand his portfolio by transitioning out of hair care into lifestyle photography.  With hard work he managed to land deals spearheading campaigns for major companies like Sears, Walmart, Quaker Oats and McDonalds.

Gaining Corporate Clients and Expanding His Market

“It was a process, a process of working with a lot of hair care companies and realizing at that point that hair care in itself and beauty in itself was just not gonna be the end all for me, making the money I wanted to make.”

According to Payton, you don’t want to get stuck in one market if your desire is to work all over the world for different corporations.

“If you want to go into more of a general market and do different things, you have to hone your portfolio so it shows a cross section of people, a cross section of looks, and that’s what I did,” he insisted. “I did hair care primarily for a few years and then I did more lifestyle.”

Tackling the Color Barrier

reggie-payton-2According to Payton, one of the bigger obstacles he’s faced throughout his career was the color of his skin, something he still sometimes experiences today. He believes that ad agencies were a part of the “Good Ole Boy System”, a negative term used to explain harmful biases or negative view points against persons’ intelligence or work ethic based solely on their race or sexuality. This made it difficult, but not impossible, for him to navigate his way throughout the industry.

I talk to a lot of agencies and a lot of folks…and for the most part…when you walk in the expression on their faces, is like what the h**” he said, insinuating how being black surprised a lot of corporations. “And my diction sometimes… really,” he continued vaguely about his well-spoken speech.

Pushing Forward Anyway

Payton acknowledges that these issues can bother him. However, because his passion is in photography he continues to push forward despite the negativity and racism he’s experienced.

“Most of the companies I worked for, for example Sears, ” he said. “The marketing manager[I worked with] was the only black marketing manager and he hired me.”

He says that now companies have diversity management. You can go in and talk to that manager about seeing your work, whereas before, this did not exist.

Finding His Own Way in the Market

Payton has created his own avenues and has also found ways to work his way through the market. Over the last six years, Payton has expanded his talent from photography to delve into other areas such as drawing, apps, websites, graphics and of course videography.

With hard work and diligence, Payton has an accomplished career that he says gets easier due to the internet and social media. With computers, the work does not have to be done by hand and now you can share it with the world with just the click of a button.

What’s next

Payton jokingly calls himself old and says there is no time to sit around. He’s leaving the United States, possibly for good.  So, it looks like Brazil or the islands will soon be blessed with more of his work.

“I’m leaving this country,” he said, laughing although he was dead serious.

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