Karen Mullarkey had every right to be anxious before Sunday's Super Bowl. After only five months as SI's director of photography, she was in New Orleans coordinating our 13-person photo operation at the biggest game of the year. But Mullarkey wasn't worried. During her two decades in photojournalism, she has overseen coverage of, among other notable events, the Challenger disaster, the war in Nicaragua and the student rebellion in Tiananmen Square. A Super Bowl? Bring it on!
Mullarkey's road to New Orleans started in Darien, Conn., where she was a sports-crazed adolescent. "Other girls had an Elvis thing, but I had a thing for Mickey Mantle," she says. "I purposely walked like Yogi Berra, much to the distress of my mother. My big disappointment was learning that little girls don't grow up to be Yankees."
With that career avenue closed to her, Mullarkey in 1967 joined another storied New York team, the photo department at Life. She started as a secretary, but in short order worked her way up to photo assistant. One of her assignments was to coordinate Life's photo coverage of six of the Apollo space missions.
Bill Eppridge, who has shot for SI since 1973, was part of Mullarkey's 15-photographer team on the Apollo 11 launch and remembers her willingness to get down in the trenches. "Karen hates bugs," he says, "but she was there in the swamps at Cape Canaveral, helping with the equipment and getting eaten alive by chiggers. She's a gamer."
Having experienced Life, Mullarkey headed west in the early '70s to work for Psychology Today in Del Mar, Calif., where she got to experiment with thematic photography. She then became picture editor of Rolling Stone in San Francisco. When Rolling Stone moved to New York City in '77, so did Mullarkey.
In 1984 she went back to her first love, conventional photojournalism, as photo editor of Newsweek. "I was terrified," she says, "but I came to love the excitement of the job. It was the most gratifying thing I'd done." There was, however, a downside. "After five years I found myself getting distressed that our best moments were other people's tragedies," says Mullarkey. "The turning point for me was Pan Am 103. I felt I was turning cold to it all, and I wondered, Is it worth it?"
So, last September, Mullarkey joined SI. Here she gets to exercise her journalistic instincts, her predilection for untried angles and her passion for sports. "This is like coming home," she says. "It's still my idea of a great evening to go to Madison Square Garden and root for the Knicks."