There is no American sporting event more treacherous for a photographer than the Super Bowl, with its lumpen mobs surging up and down the field trying desperately not to miss the game's turning point. Iooss has covered all 28 Super Bowls, and last January he got SI's cover picture of Dallas Cowboy running back Emmitt Smith—Iooss's 11th Super Bowl cover—even though he had not shot another football game that season and was one of 13 SI photographers at the game.
For a third of a century Iooss has captured some of the most memorable moments in sports—the game-winning reception by the Pittsburgh Steelers' John Stallworth in the 1980 Super Bowl, the Catch by San Francisco's Dwight Clark in the 1982 playoffs against Dallas—and created others from his own imagination. "A lot of guys have action happen in front of them, and they still don't get the picture," says SI deputy picture editor Steve Fine. "Walter always gets the great action picture, and he can take an idea for a feature picture that somebody else has and turn it into a work of art."
"The angle I shoot is the best angle," Iooss says. "There are no other angles."
Many of Iooss's most celebrated photographs were produced in the full-dress battle of game action, but he has also taken some of the most famous—or infamous, if you happen to make your living as a high school librarian—pictures of beach action since Robert Capa's shots of the American landing at Normandy. In Iooss's case, there were no bullets flying as he stormed the beachhead at, say, the Seychelle Islands for the magazine's annual swimsuit issue, but occasionally there were daggers drawn.
Cheryl Tiegs was already something of a diva in the fashion world in 1978 when Iooss took her picture in a white fishnet bathing suit on a riverbank in Brazil, but she was not yet what that one frame of film—which showed a side of Tiegs that people hadn't seen before—would transform her into: one of the most famous people on the planet.
"Cheryl was very annoyed we were photographing another girl while she was waiting," recalls senior editor Jule Campbell, "and I could see she wanted to go back to the hotel. I went over and whispered to Walter that we had to shoot Cheryl, and he was annoyed that I was interrupting him. It was a gray day, with terrible light, so I asked Cheryl if she'd mind getting wet. Not because I wanted to be able to see through her suit more—I just wanted her skin to get wet because I thought maybe there would be highlights. Walter snapped it, but her arms were at her side, she wasn't posing, and she didn't look happy." She did, however, look practically naked.
"I was at Cheryl's house in California after that issue came out, and the phone wouldn't stop ringing," Iooss says. "Everybody was suddenly after her. I'd never been with a person whose life was actually changing the moment you were there. I said, 'You know what, Cheryl, it's like a coin on its edge. The moment it falls down, your old life is over.' "
In many ways Iooss's old life was ending at about that same time. Like spies, swimsuit pictures are shot at dawn, and for the first time in his career, Iooss discovered that the morning sun was as beautiful—and just as fleeting—as any halfback who ever ran to daylight, Iooss had fiercely resisted early wake-up calls. Two years before, he had shot six frames of Tiegs on a beach in Cancun, Mexico, and then muttered to Campbell, "I can't work this early." One of those six frames became the first of his seven swimsuit covers. "He loves the play of light and shadows now," says Campbell.
"He wasn't easy to work with then," Campbell continues. "He was still a little boy in many ways. In the early days I was using only fashion photographers, and when I first used Walter, he hadn't done women before, so he was quite excited. Walter kept running around the girls, looking for angles. I think he gave it a very fresh approach."
A fresh approach is also evident in the only picture taken of Iooss's wedding. It is a black-and-white shot of Walter and his bride, Eva, standing on the sidewalk outside New York's City Hall enjoying a hot dog. Iooss had met Dutch model Eva Faase one hot summer day in 1974 at the apartment of a woman he knew. "I walked in, and there was Eva, lying on the couch in her underwear," Walter says. "I liked her immediately. But she did not like me. She thought I was deranged, with my wild shades and sideburns, and she told her friend not to leave her alone with me."