They were married two years later. But the City Hall ceremony "was not the way to do it, and I regret it now," says Iooss. "It was like, couple, couple, couple, next! It looked like a catalog shoot. It couldn't have been uglier. After the ceremony we bought Sabrett's hot dogs from a street vendor. Then I left her at the apartment and went to the office."
This was not particularly surprising behavior, for Iooss considered the Time & Life Building "a cathedral," no less sacred for being a secular film drop at which he had been making devotional offerings since the age of 16. "That building has been such a part of my life," he says. "When all of my friends went away to college, and my mother was going crazy because it looked like I might turn into some kind of derelict, I would go to the Time & Life Building, and it was like a home, a refuge. I would get out the old volumes of the magazine and sit for hours—miserable—looking at the pictures, dreaming that someday I could do this."
At his home in East Orange, N.J., he had lined an entire room with pictures from SI and Sport, and it was not uncommon for Iooss to play stickball for 12 hours straight, pitching until his arm was limp. "I imagine sports were some sort of therapy for me," he says, "because life at home wasn't the greatest." Iooss's parents were divorced when he was four, and for the next four years he was not permitted to see his father, a stand-up bass player who had worked with Billie Holiday and with Benny Goodman's band. "It still bothers me," Walter says. "We had so much in common. But that's the way the courts were in those days. There had to be somebody to blame, and my father, being a musician, was obviously the curse of the neighborhood.
"After my parents were divorced, they replaced my father with a TV set," Iooss adds. "It was a Dumont TV with a screen about five inches across. I think that was the beginning of my visual sensibility, watching that little box. I guess the idea was, It's 1948, we'll give him a TV, maybe it'll make him feel better. And I did love it, but not as much as I loved my father."
When his father's exile was over, Walter began to visit him in Brooklyn. "I spent the entire summer in Brooklyn the year of Rock Around the Clock," Iooss says. "Let me tell you, this was an education. That's when I learned about J.D. cards [which the police compiled on troublesome kids]. There was even a song, I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent, by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Meanwhile Frankie's shooting heroin." It was also during that summer of rock-and-roll that Iooss began to dance, developing a habit from which he has not fully recovered. "You couldn't help but dance," he says. "I danced so much I had calluses on my fingers from popping them all the time."
His trigger finger remained remarkably callus-free until his father got season tickets to New York Giant football games when Walter was 15. His dad insisted on taking pictures from the grandstand with a 300-millimeter telephoto lens. "I didn't want to use it," Iooss says, "mainly because the guys in front of us were these big truck drivers, and any time there was a big play, they'd jump up and smack their heads. I thought, If this is photography, I don't want any part of it."
It was midseason before Walter would consent to even look through the camera's long lens. "And I discovered then, life through a telephoto looks pretty good, because you eliminate everything you don't want to see," he says. When he got home from the stadium, he began to practice by photographing his friends as they played stickball and ran pass routes. He shrewdly charged his playmates $5 each for prints. He also used to travel south to shoot football games at Princeton, and he used the same ploy to get onto the field there, exchanging prints for access.
"Now I'm starting to feel hot, so I call up SPORTS ILLUSTRATED," he says. "Why I'm calling SI at 16, I don't know. But where else was I going to call? I got hold of the assistant picture editor and told him I had a portfolio. He said, 'There are no nudes in it, are there?' Nudes? I had never even seen a nude."
Iooss made an appointment to show his pictures to the magazine's editors in New York. "It was easy for me to get out of school, because I had braces on my teeth from the eighth grade until I was a senior in high school," he says, "so I was always going to the orthodontist in New York." Iooss showed up at the Time & Life Building with wire on his teeth and a "Chicago box" haircut (long on the side, crew cut on top). A few months later the magazine bought one of his pictures of a Princeton game for the opening spread of the 1960 college football preview issue.
"Walter is the only real genius there has ever been in sports photography," says Leifer. "He came on the scene already very, very advanced, taking these brilliant pictures almost intuitively, like a pianist who can play everything by car." Leifer, who at 14 had begun delivering sandwiches for Manhattan's Stage Deli after school to pay for new lenses, was himself a prodigy who went on to take one of the most famous pictures in all of sports—a snarling Muhammad Ali standing over the recumbent Sonny Liston after his celebrated knockout in Lewiston, Maine, in 1965 (page 66)—among dozens of heart-stopping theatrical moments. And yet Leifer often played Salieri to Iooss's Mozart. "I was always the first person at the stadium, my equipment working brilliantly," Leifer says. "Walter would arrive during the national anthem, pounding on his motor drive because he hadn't bothered to check it before leaving for the game."