Behind The Lens Of A Playboy Photographer
By Abbey Hood
If you define the beauty of a culture by its women, there is one person documenting American beauty: Playboy photographer Stephen Wayda.
Like a Rolling Stone “Best Of” album that will be remembered as one of the definitive movements of American music, Wayda’s “Best Of” is a record of American women spanning 25 years.
Not just any women, beautiful women.
From the celebrities (Sharon Stone, Kim Basinger, Kim Kardashian and even Nancy Sinatra) to the models (Brooke Burke and Pamela Anderson) to the unknowns who have graced the coveted centerfold of Playboy, Wayda is an American photographer known for his ability to capture a microcosm of American women at their best.
“I never planned on being a photographer. Never expected to be a Playboy photographer,” he says. “Hef gave me an opportunity that scores of photographers only dream about. Gene Autry once told me ‘Keep shooting those shots son. I wish I was in your boots.’ I’m still shooting those shots.”
Stephen Wayda walks into his Santa Monica office after a long commute from his home in the San Fernando Valley.
Ten years ago that commute was a plane ride from Salt Lake City. After the birth of his daughter he ultimately decided to move closer to the office.
His Utah roots are noticeably visible by the brown cowboy boots peeking out from underneath his light denim pants that tuck in a loose flowing white button down.
He’s got to wear something he can move around in because unlike a lot of photographers this one doesn’t like to use a tripod.
His peppered hair is long enough to cover his ears and compliment his thick beard.
He’s had that beard long before he became the Playboy legend; he’s had it since he photographed Nixon.
Before he was Stephen Wayda the photographer, he was Stephen Wayda the newspaper reporter at the Salt Lake City Tribune.
“I investigated murders, interviewed death row inmates, and chased killers. I had a good time,” he says.
He busted up gambling rings and went on drug stings with the cops; he took photos of killers and politicians like former president Richard Nixon.
He won dozens of awards for the articles, but nothing for his photos.
It would be these photos that would lead him to where he is today.
A friend was looking for help with shooting department store ads and because Wayda had experience at the paper he was hired.
It wasn’t just any department store.
It was the Mormon department store, ZCMI.
So, yes, ironically the man behind Playboy got his start in the Mormon Church.
THE MORMON SPREAD
Stephen Wayda unlike many photographers of today did not go to school for his profession.
Taking photos for ZCMI, using models from a small-time agency based in Salt Lake, is where he got his “on-the-job training.”
He learned how to compose a photograph by placing a subject in a tight, narrow space for the department store ads.
“The women were selling something in their environment—they had to sell the clothes… There is not much of a difference when you transition to a Centerfold—they are women shown in an environment to sell a magazine.”
“A Centerfold is a tough photo. It is a picture of a woman in a long, narrow space. Like a puzzle, you have to figure out how to put it together to make it beautiful.”
While he was taking photographs for ZCMI, Stephen Wayda had a chance encounter with a man named Dwight Hooker.
Hooker was a well-known Playboy photographer responsible for the ads, “What Sort Of Man Reads Playboy?”
Hooker retired from Playboy to become an architect in Sundance. He used Wayda when he needed a connection to a modeling agency.
“He saw me as a source for models,” says Wayda. “He never saw me as talent to be in the magazine.”
Nonetheless, Hooker soon became Wayda’s mentor.
“He was like a pontificating professor,” he says. “He had such a world of knowledge.”
Using his experience at ZCMI and the lessons from Hooker, Wayda began sending his photos to Playboy.
“I had some success, and some not success with the editor at the time Marilyn Grabowski.”
When Stephen Wayda started to make his mark in the 1970s, there were three prominent women instrumental in magazines, he says.
“Anna Wintour of Vogue, the editor of Sports Illustrated and Marilyn Grabowski of Playboy were all developing their brands.”
Grabowski developed Playboy alongside owner Hugh Hefner in the 1970s and 80s.
“Marilyn was brilliant, she had the ability to produce exactly what Hef wanted.”
“Marilyn was intent in developing a new photographer, I was the chosen one. Through her belief I kept getting more chances.”
Her belief eventually landed Wayda his first Centerfold.
Arriving in Los Angeles from Utah, Stephen Wayda naturally decided to go back to his roots for his first Centerfold.
He used two models from Salt Lake City and the state’s outdoors for a backdrop.
Using an 8×10 camera, he took 1,800 different shots over a period of seven days.
“At the time, I really didn’t know how to operate the camera, I just faked it.”
Because of the enhancements in technology and the development of the digital camera, shooting a Centerfold today takes one day.
“We can shoot the photos in the morning and have it to Hef by the afternoon.”
The success of Stephen Wayda’s first Centerfold launched a 30-year career.
Wayda is the last Centerfold photographer hired in 25 years.
He has become famous for his ability to use light to make women look like the image of perfection.
“Light is everything. It is one of the things photographers now don’t know as well because of (software like) Photoshop (that can manipulate light).”
Wayda does not use Photoshop.
“Everyone has a blemish or a line, but for the most part we do not retouch the photographs.”
The beautiful women to grace the pages of Playboy are just a microcosm of American women, says Stephen Wayda.
They are the girls next door.
Some want to be stars, some want 15 minutes of fame and some want it only for that one moment.
Some women are going through school; some already have PhDs.
“They are a representation of American women,” he says.
All are different, all have different personalities.
“All are unique with their own hopes and dreams.”
They come to Playboy through different paths.
“Sometimes their boyfriends send in the pictures, sometimes their moms, sometimes modeling agencies.”
But all have one thing in common: “They all say, “This is one of the greatest experiences I have ever had. I look so beautiful.”
Wayda knows that the photograph is really the model’s photograph, not his.
“They have one chance, one time to be a Playmate…They are not here for me, I am here for them.”
PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE PEOPLE
It’s not only about the women.
Stephen Wayda is a photographer who likes to capture people.
He has photographed everyone from Mormon Bishops to Aborigines to celebrities.
“From the sand dunes of the Sahara, to the Mormon Bishop in Utah to Botswana, Playboy is such a recognized brand that people want to work with you. They want to show you what is special about where they live and are thrilled with the idea of showing their place in the magazine.”
He can recount tales of being stuck in the Caribbean during the middle of a hurricane for a photo shoot and enduring freezing weather in Alaska only to return to find the camera broken and all photos lost.
When he’s not shooting abroad, Wayda finds himself and his crew shooting on beaches along the Pacific Coast Highway or elaborate Beverly Hills homes or hotels including Peninsula Beverly Hills.
If the weather doesn’t permit him to shoot outside, he’s at his home base, the Playboy West Studios in Santa Monica.
“(In the studio) we essentially make a small movie set.”
The sets vary for each pictorial.
“We try and really find something that relates to the girl, something that depicts her sense of being.”
COMING TO YOU IN 3-D
In the June issue of Playboy readers will notice Stephen Wayda has done something a little different with Centerfold Hope Dworaczyk.
Using glasses provided by the magazine, readers will watch the brunette beauty reach out to them holding a wine glass.
The high-resolution digital 3-D images are shot stereoscopically so they are a true 3-D anaglyph rather than a 2-D or 3-D conversion, he says.
The images jump off the page or out of the computer screen and follow you as you move from left to right, up and down, backward and forward.
The 3-D has greater separation and a truer sense of the original shape of the subject.
For the shoot, Wayda says he and his assistant Ben Pursell built their own high-resolution digital camera rig to capture in stereo.
Wayda plans to expand his 3-D images off the pages of Playboy to luxury brand, alcohol and motor advertisements, maybe even billboards, he says.
“Imagine having a 3-D billboard on Sunset with kids standing in front handing out glasses, “he says. “It would be huge, the image would come out 10-20 feet from the billboard.”
THE NAKED TRUTH
While some readers may criticize Playboy for their photo spreads of naked women, Wayda says, “Throughout history, there is art depicting naked women.”
“Playboy will be the definitive source of what women looked like in the 20th and 21st century.”
ONE LAST QUESTION: After 30 years, do you ever get tired of taking photos of beautiful women?
“What’s not to love about the job! Making beautiful pictures of beautiful women that are seen around the world, in the magazine that has defined female beauty for over half a century.
“And I get paid, travel the world, meet great people, work with talented and creative editors, and even go to the Playboy Mansion to watch movies with Hef.
“It’s a cliché, but hey, its just a job and someone has to do it.”