Laretta Houston’s path to becoming an SI Swimsuit photographer was unconventional and, for her, unexpected. Not long before she received the assignment to photograph Tyra Banks for the 2019 issue cover, Houston was a web designer and developer who took photos of landscapes and old cars during her lunch breaks. Then, one day, a curious client took notice.
“I remember the company I worked for, one of the clients came in and she happened to look at my photos there, pulled up on the computer monitor,” recalls Houston. “I remember she said, ‘Oh my God! Your pictures are amazing. I really see the potential in you.’ And then I was like, ‘Oh, do you?’ And she’s like, ‘Yes.’ The next day she came back and she gave me her Minolta. The whole bag, the caboodle, the lenses and everything. She said, ‘I know you can do something with this.’ And that was my start as a photographer.”
After that generous gift, Houston realized her own potential and got to work. Shortly after, she landed on the collective radar of Banks and SI Swimsuit editor in chief MJ Day.
Says Houston, “It just seems like yesterday, that first phone call I got from MJ saying, ‘We’d like you to join our team to shoot for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit.’ I was excited and nervous at the same time, because this was big. This is everybody’s dream.”
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Houston traveled to the Bahamas for the job, having no idea that Banks was part of the assignment.
“MJ called me up to her villa and asked to look at some of the pictures or inspirations I wanted to shoot,” Houston recalls. “When I went up there, up the stairwell and, bam, there were like three cameras and I was like, ‘What is going on here?’ We sat down at the table and she was like, ‘Let me look at your inspirations.’ And I was just like, ‘O.K., great.’ I opened up my Macbook and we looked at some of the inspiration. [MJ] was like, ‘Well, I didn’t call you here for that.’ And that’s when she said that I was going to shoot Tyra Banks for the cover. I was in a bit of shock. And then I happened to look at everybody and I cried because it was a moment in my life that I didn’t think I was able to get. A lot of people dream of things that they want to do, but some of them are unattainable and I actually attained it.”
Doors kept opening up for Houston after the 2019 issue was released and Banks was behind them, helping to turn the knob.
“[Tyra] started sending me emails saying, ‘O.K., Laretta, it’s time for you to get signed.’ And I finally got signed with Exclusive Artists,” adds Houson. “It didn’t end with the emails trying to get me signed. That relationship continued and she wanted to elevate me. She wanted to use her platform to elevate me and other Black women. That was life changing.”
The daughter of a military father and a Filipino mother who traveled a lot, Houston spent most of her time growing up with relatives modestly raised in Angeles City, Philippines. After losing her mother to Lupus, at age 13 Houston entered the foster care system, eventually making her way to the United States, where she was determined to change the course of her life. Her unique background has allowed her to capture beauty, strength and power in complex places while seeing each project as a personal journey of her own.
Houston showcased that same beauty, strength and power when she photographed WNBA players Nneka Ogwumike, Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird, DiDi Richards and Te’a Cooper for the 2022 SI Swimsuit Issue in St. Thomas.
“These women, to me, were very powerful,” says Houston. “Working with Nneka [Ogwumike] was amazing. That girl right there, we had a connection with each other. Breanna [Stewart] was hilarious. She’s very quiet at first and then she got really loose and Sue [Bird], who is 41?! How amazing it is to look that beautiful at 41 and to even have an eight pack. And although she was quiet, she was very confident and loving. You can see it right? I mean, she was amazing in front of the camera. Te'a [Cooper]. Oh my God. That butt! I need to get back into the gym. DiDi [Richards] I love. She was just carefree. She really didn’t care. It was just easy to shoot her and she just nailed every pose. It was just effortless.”
Houston’s rise hasn’t been one she takes for granted. “I am now one of the Black women—and there’s plenty of talented Black photographers out there—to pave the way for others to come in, someone who looks like them,” says Houston. “And so even for little girls, I am someone they inspire to be.
“I want people to look at my photos and take away that they know we’re strong. We’re bold. We’re Black. We’re beautiful, confident.”