There are those who lake photographs arranged beforehand and those who go out to discover the image and seize it.... To take photographs is to hold one's breath when all faculties converge in the face of fleeing reality.... It is putting one's head, one's eye and one's heart on the same axis.
Reality wasn't fleeing, it was bearing down fast on Walter Iooss Jr. as he stood behind the end zone in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, watching Jimmy Orr of the Colts run under a lovely spiral that had just floated off the coarsened fingertips of John Unitas. "It had been a very tight game," says Iooss. "With a minute left, Unitas throws a deep-corner route, and I, of course, am standing in the right place when Orr dives for the ball, hobbling it as he falls into the end zone with the winning touchdown."
This is the decisive moment—not only as it was first formulated by the French master photographer Cartier-Bresson, but also in the fortunes of the 1962 Colts, and not least of all in the life of Iooss, who was then 19 years old and on his first pro football assignment for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. He had prepared himself meticulously for the occasion. "I would watch Pro Football Highlights every Thursday on TV," he says. "It was broadcast in black and white, so I wore all khaki-colored clothes, because I wanted to be able to see myself on television if something happened."
As the ball fluttered down toward Orr, a defensive back for the San Francisco 49ers named Jerry Mertens leaped for it, his right arm on the same plane as Orr's eyes, shoulders and outstretched hands. "I was so close that I had to run away, focusing over my shoulder," Iooss says. "I had no motor drive—it was all single shot in those days—and it all happened so fast that I just knew there was no way I got this picture.
"But that didn't matter. I threw my arms up and started jumping all over Jimmy Orr. I was out of my mind, pounding him on the back. I couldn't believe that the Colts, who were my favorite team, had won the game. For that one instant I was like part of the game." When the game was finished, Iooss thought he was too. "All the way back on the train, people would see my camera and ask me if I got that catch," he says. "I was devastated, just certain I didn't get it. But that one frame was so tack-sharp. It was a beautiful picture. Not only to see myself the following Thursday on Pro Football Highlights in my khakis, but to get that photograph...that was a big moment for me."
Iooss (whose name is pronounced just the way you would expect it to be if you were of Belgian extraction, or yoce in the absence of such a miracle of birth) has been at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED for 34 of the magazine's 40 years. But the 176 Iooss covers and thousands of Iooss images the magazine has published during that time constitute much more than a testament to longevity. They are monuments frozen in memory, like crystals of snow—a glittering landscape with life raging just beneath the surface. In SI's formative years no one knew if the editors dreamed in color or black and white, or if they just waited to see what kind of film Iooss was shooting that week.
The life of a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED writer holds few pleasures greater than being told, by people who are strangers and likely to remain so, "I love the pictures in your magazine." Frequently those pictures were taken by Walter Iooss Jr. And if some of his earliest photos have begun to yellow and fade, Iooss himself has not, remaining the trim heartthrob he was the day he came to work here, except now he doesn't have braces on his teeth.
Iooss has always traveled light to games, using fewer cameras and consequently looking less like a Sherpa than any other photographer. "What Walter did best, nobody else could do at all," says Neil Leifer, who was Iooss's great rival during Leifer's 18 years as a photographer at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. "He was the Cartier-Bresson of sports photography, except with longer lenses. He took a lot of chances, but he always came back with the decisive moment."
Iooss sets himself physically apart from the pack at most events. "I think part of that is because I started out shooting from the stands," he says. "I never worked with the other photographers. I bought tickets for so long that I found all these other angles that were quite beautiful to shoot. If you're with everyone else, your pictures are going to look like everyone else's."
When other photographers began to realize that Iooss had an uncanny knack for being where things were happening, he attracted a little covey of followers who moved with him from position to position around the field. "Then it got so bad, he'd go to the men's room, and suddenly there'd be half a dozen photographers in the men's room," says Mike Ehret, who was Iooss's assistant for a dozen years.