Wrestling into his red vest with the names of universities embroidered on it, Jim Laughead looked as if he were being attacked by a tattooed lobster. Threshing and grunting in front of the motel mirror, Laughead somehow managed to dominate the remarkable vest without being swallowed. Laughead jammed onto his head a Snuffy Smith hat that is shapeless as an oyster. "I love this hat," he said, adoring it in the mirror. "I rank it right up there with my dog and my wife."
His faded blue overalls flapping from a pair of limp suspenders, Laughead went out and crawled into his station wagon with his son-in-law, Jim Bradley, and drove off through the quiet streets of Tuscaloosa toward the University of Alabama. Within an hour Laughead would be on the practice field surrounded by large Alabama football players, all of them laughing at him with the delight of happy little boys. He would be swinging his arms, dancing a maniacal twist, stomping the dry grass as if he had scorpions in his shoes and shouting "a-huckin' and a-buckin' " in a voice that would make windows fly up all over the campus. And Jim Laughead would be at work. Not, though it may certainly sound so, as an itinerant clown, but as a sports photographer, the most successful, if artistically undemanding, photographer of athletes in the land.
James F. Laughead (he pronounces it lawhead) is the master of the photographic clich�—of the leaping stiff-arm, the I-despise-you scowl, the halfback crossover that looks like a ballet step, the wild dive that has knocked the breath out of hundreds of linemen. If you have ever thumbed through a football annual or read the preseason sports pages of your daily newspaper, chances are you have viewed the work of Laughead. His clients include the publicity directors of many of the National and American Football League teams and of 74 college football and basketball teams from Penn State to Miami and from North Carolina to Arizona.
Laughead admits his photographs are not exactly avant-garde. "I know most of this stuff is a bromide," he said as he unpacked his equipment at Alabama. "I've tried to come up with new poses. But the newspapers like that old stuff, so who am I to tell them what to use?" His "action" pictures may be phony, but they are always in focus.
There is a madness to Laughead's method, but the madness is calculated. His costume, his jokes, his insults, his attitudes are part of an act that has been so well received that Laughead has adopted it into his personality and now no longer has to act. "They all think I'm nuts," he said. "What do I care? I get their pictures."
There can be no argument about that. Laughead's photo lab in Dallas, across Hillcrest Street from Southern Methodist University, turns out more than 100,000 sports prints per year, and he has probably the most complete file of sports photographs of any commercial photographer in the country. Included in his files are color photographs of major league baseball and professional football players, shot to decorate bubble-gum cards and the backs of cereal boxes. But most of these assignments Laughead leaves to Bradley—who is companion, chauffeur, co-worker and factotum as well as son-in-law, and who is as silent as Laughead is boisterous. What Laughead delights in is the running shot he can demonstrate himself, or the Death Dive, which he invented but does not demonstrate.
"The Death Dive ain't really a death dive at all," said Laughead, watching a few Alabama players beginning to gather at their red-brick locker room. "I call it that to make it sound classy. If a guy does it like I tell him and keeps his fists clenched so he won't break his fingers and keeps his arms above his head so he won't break his wrists, he won't get hurt a bit. Some of those donkeys don't do it my way, though. That's when they get twisted up."
A well-executed Death Dive looks, in the Laughead photograph, as if the player is making a racing dive where there is, unfortunately, no pool. The camera catches him in the air, surrounded by sky and with the foreboding of a hard fall reflected in his face. In truth, the player merely assumes a three-point stance and at Laughead's command launches himself a couple of feet off the ground. The low camera angle gives the illusion of height.
"It used to be different," Laughead said. "I would take Ki Aldrich [All-America center at Texas Christian University in 1938] down behind the stadium where his coach, Dutch Meyer, couldn't see him. Ki would run 30 yards and dive as high as a six-foot ladder. He'd land on his nose and skid through the dirt and come up grinning, with blood all over his face, and yell, 'How was that, Jim? Want me to try it again?' He loved proving how tough he was. Why, it wasn't even human."
The Aldrich style is no longer popular, but football players still do get hurt occasionally in the Death Dive. And so does Laughead. Two years in a row a lineman at South Carolina smashed Laughead's camera by coming down on it, and Laughead had to pick pieces of glass out of his own chest with tweezers. A lineman at Clemson hurled himself in an enthusiastic Death Dive and hit his head on one of the steel bars that Laughead uses to stake out his shooting area. "Took 11 stitches in him," Laughead said. "I sure hated that."