Walter Iooss Jr, a sports photography superstar for more than 50 years, regaled a 2015 LOOK3 audience on Friday with some of the best tales from his storied career. Steve Fine, former director of photography at Sport Illustrated, joined Iooss on stage at the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville to prompt Iooss about his encounters with many great athletes: Roger Maris, Dave Parker, Joe Namath, Muhammed Ali, Tiger Woods, and Michael Jordan, to name only a few.

Iooss was a teenager without a driver’s license when he got his first assignment from Sports Illustrated around 1961. His father had to drive him to the job. The subject, an 83-year-old man who had built a sailboat and sailed it to Florida and back, looked at the 17-year-old photographer and said incredulously, “This is my moment?”

Iooss was, by his own account, born with a passion and a talent for photography. “Photography’s not that hard. It really isn’t,” he said during his talk. “It’s just instinctual. I’ve never had another job. I don’t know anything else. [I’m an] idiot savant.”

Equal to his passion for photography is his love of and fascination with sports. “When you play, the moment a pitch is thrown, or you shoot, or hit a golf ball, the whole world stops. There’s nothing that’s really happening except that moment with you, and that’s the escape of sport,” he said. “Sport is a real fantasy world, and in some ways, I try to project my childhood fantasies continually in pictures because you need a child’s heart to get the energy of these guys.”

Asked by Fine to talk about the defining characteristics of his work, Iooss offered what amounted to advice for aspiring sports photographers.

“I’m a stickler for backgrounds,” he said. “If the background’s bad and the light’s bad, there’s no picture. Someone once said I never met a wall I didn’t like. So I love walls, and I love backgrounds where people can fit into it. So you might go to a game, and just find the best background, and sit in the spot and hope that something happens in that narrow frame of 1000 mm or 600 mm or whatever. I always said it’s easy to take a good picture; it’s hard to take a great picture. You have to gamble to take a great picture. If you don’t gamble, you don’t take them.”

Iooss is so successful in part because he’s never been afraid to take risks. He famously documented Michael Jordan behind the scenes, at the height of Jordan’s pro basketball career, and published a book of the photographs called Rare Air (1993). He explained to the LOOK3 audience how he got access.

“I always thought the greatest set of pictures on any youthful star, which is what everyone wants to look at in the long run, was Elvis Presley in 1956 by Albert Wertheimer. I always loved those pictures,” Iooss said. So with no warning to Jordan, Iooss flew to Chicago, and waited outside the Chicago Bulls locker room. When Jordan emerged, Iooss then pitched his idea. “I said, ‘You’ve got it all right now. This is the peak of your career. No one’s ever done this.’ I came back in a week, and he said, ‘Let’s do it.’ We shook hands, and started the book.”

Iooss talked about the importance of staying on good terms with the athletes he photographs, by recounting a hard lesson he learned back in the 1970s with a behind-the-scenes photograph of Pittsburgh Pirates star Dave Parker smoking a cigarette. “When you spend that much time with a team, it’s like they don’t see you anymore. And just before a game, a lot of players smoked [furtively],” Iooss said.

“They ran that picture [of Parker smoking] in The New York Times. Dave Parker was very upset. He was going to kill me. He was 6’7″, weighed 260 pounds, and was nicknamed The Cobra. The most important fact with these athletes is the trust level, because once you lose that, there’s no place to go with these guys.” The next time Iooss saw Parker, about a year later, Parker reamed him out in front of 20 other players. “He was saying, ‘Never trust this guy [Iooss] as long as you live.'” [They eventually made up, although Iooss didn’t go into detail about the groveling he presumably had to do.]

Iooss added, “I need to be their friend. I’m not coming here to get in a big discussion with Lance [Armstrong] about what he did wrong. He once said, ‘You’re still here!’ I said, ‘Lance, it’s not my job to get into this [controversy about Armstrong’s doping scandal]. I’m just here to take a picture of you.'”

One of Iooss’s more poignant stories was about his portrait session in 2003 with boxing rivals Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, at Frazier’s gym in Philadelphia. Ali had “abused” Frazier over the years, and not in a friendly way, Iooss said. But his magazine client wanted “fun pictures” of the two boxers. Ali walked into Frazier’s gym asking, “Where is that big ugly ape?” Iooss recounted. “And then he went silent, because he’s got Parkinson’s. And he sat in the ring, and his hand kept running to his crotch, and I kept saying, ‘Muhammad, this is not a Michael Jackson shot, you’ve got to get your hand off your crotch.’ And Joe picked [Ali’s hand] up, and held it, and that was the picture.”

Even great photographers screw up, though, and in one humorous exchange during their conversation, Fine teased Iooss about an obviously embarrassing moment for the photographer.

Fine: “The Giants were playing the Patriots [in Super Bowl XLII, 2008]. The Patriots were 18-0 [undefeated] , going for 19-0 and immortality. It was a crappy game for three quarters, then in the fourth quarter all hell broke loose, and the Giants scored a touchdown on a fairly famous play. What was your angle on that?”

Iooss (sheepishly): “I was on the way to the airport. I was in the wrong end of the field!”

Fine: “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Iooss: “I might as well have been [positioned at] the marquee outside.”

Fine: “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Iooss: “See, this is why you’re a pain in the ass.”

At another point in the conversation, Iooss explained how he manages the pressure of the short time limits he’s given by the athletes and their publicists to capture a portrait.

“It’s a game, and the game is to play the players’ game,” he said, describing a shoot of Tiger Woods for which he had just 7-1/2 minutes. “He comes in, and I just started to talk very slowly.” Iooss said he then invited Woods to have a look at his computer. “Instead of showing him some golf, I show him some swimsuit models, and you know what? I’ve got him!”

Iooss’s photographs of SI swimsuit models have earned him the attention of a lot of athletes, he says. But he always adheres to the time limits they give him for a shoot, so they remember him as the photographer who plays by their rules and doesn’t waste their time. “I’ve got 10 minutes? I’m done in 9,” he said.

Related:
Walter Iooss on His Long-Term Photographic Partnership with Michael Jordan (for PDN subscribers)
LOOK3 2015: Larry Fink on Experience, Empathy, and Being “Stuck” with a Successful Career
LOOK3 2015: David Alan Harvey’s Reunion with a Long-Lost Subject (and Other Surprises)


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