If you’ve lived in Eugene for a while, you know the city has a vibrant community of young and old from all walks of life. No one appreciates the faces of Eugene better than Peggy Iileen Johnson, a local fashion photographer who has captured Eugene’s many faces since arriving here in 2004. With clients ranging from professionals and students to aspiring models, Johnson has made a career out of her passion for people, celebrating 40 years of doing what she loves.
Much of Johnson’s work involves doing fashion portraits, photographing portraits of clients that show off their clothes, and modeling portraits, which she does to help young people create a modeling portfolio and give them a platform to get started in the business.
“I try to help girls and guys who want to be models,” Johnson said. “I send them out to get new clothes and things they think they can model. Right now in Eugene, that’s what I’m doing: helping young models get into business.
Collaborating with clients, Johnson directs them to her website to get an idea of what others have done, and she works with different style categories and her own selection of specific outfit combinations based on their needs. She offers them a look at the different looks they can rock, like grunge, bridesmaid, hippie, downtown girl, and schoolboy. She provides clients with a starting point to build their model look.
“We talk about fashion, so it’s really important to me that they bring the right clothes with them for whatever they do,” she said. “Then when they’re here, I have to say I kind of teach them the craft, because as models they’re all beginners.”
Long before coming to Eugene, Johnson got his start in the photography business while living in Hollywood, originally working as an accountant at the time. She started dating a boy who had just graduated from the Brooks Institute, a photography school. Eventually, he brought her to his studio where he was assisting another photographer, opening her eyes to a new world that she fell in love with early on.
“I learned everything just being there,” Johnson said. “And then I quit my job as an accountant at $20 an hour and went to work for $5 an hour at a camera store, and I worked at Pizza Hut at night. We do this what we have to do, and it’s guided by God – I can’t believe I did this.
Selling her first piece in 1982, she officially began her professional career in photography. His early pieces were mostly works of art, many of which were sold in stores on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. She soon crossed paths with actor and comedian Kevin Nealon, who lived in the same apartment complex as her. He told her she should go see her agent, and soon enough she launched her full-time career in photography, taking pictures of actors.
“Doing portraits in Hollywood just taught me to really see people. To really see and study faces,” Johnson said.
In 1999, after nearly two decades of working with Hollywood actors, she moved to Sedona, Arizona, where she lived for five years shooting weddings. She eventually got tired of the city and wanted to pursue something more.
“I wasn’t happy in Sedona,” she said. “It was a chore because we were shooting weddings, whether it was 16 degrees or 116 degrees outside on the pitch, that’s where we did it. So I really wanted to find another location.
Eventually, Johnson began looking to other cities, hoping to find a place to shoot faces again. She traveled everywhere, but kept coming back to Eugene, where she finally settled.
“I wanted to photograph faces. I love faces,” she said. “People here are beautiful. There are just beautiful people here, and I just had a great time.
Now, for nearly 20 years, Johnson has been Eugene’s go-to portrait photographer for anyone who wants to capture their best selves, including young models looking to enter the industry. For her, photo shoots aren’t just about taking pictures, it’s about getting to know people and hearing their stories.
“Everyone who comes into the studio, even those who come on business, just has a story to tell. I learn something from everyone,” Johnson said. I’m with someone one-on-one and I’m gonna shoot him, boy, I wanna know him.”
Johnson wants to take her passion for people and inspire the Eugene community to embrace their beauty, and she hopes her photography can do just that.
“If they have a good photographer, they can see how beautiful they are, and then they can go forward with confidence,” she said. “I just think that’s the most important thing to me.”
After 40 years of doing what she loves and meeting so many people along the way, Johnson still celebrates people and life through her camera, and her time capturing the beauty of Eugene’s diverse community is far from over.