SI Vault
Walter Iooss Jr.
December 12, 2011
The intrepid SI photographer spent the last 50 years shooting the biggest games, the greatest athletes and the most beautiful swimsuit models. Some guys just can't catch a break
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December 12, 2011

The Education Of Walter Iooss Jr.

The intrepid SI photographer spent the last 50 years shooting the biggest games, the greatest athletes and the most beautiful swimsuit models. Some guys just can't catch a break

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I grew up in East Orange, N.J. My grandparents on my mother's side hated that I went to East Orange High School. They wanted me to get out of there because there were so many blacks and Italians. It was like The Sopranos meets Shaft. But because I grew up in a mixed community, half of my friends were black. Looking back, I think it made a great difference in my relationships with black athletes. They could sense that I understood, because of where I came from. There was this bond between us. I wasn't just another white person who had no idea what their lives were like.

Sports were like therapy for me when I was young. My parents got divorced when I was four, and it was really acrimonious. My dad was a jazz musician who played with Benny Goodman, and I wasn't allowed to see him for four years. Even after that, when I saw him on weekends, it was horrible for me. Every time he would leave on Sunday, I was despondent.

He was replaced for me by a little DuMont TV. I think it was a defining experience, seeing those images in that box at an early age, even if the screen was only five inches. I think that's partly where my visual sensibility comes from. I would stay up late every night watching TV. I escaped into sports.

The first time I looked through a real camera lens was at a football game in 1959. I was 16. My dad took me to see the Giants, and we were way up in the stands at Yankee Stadium, and I remember thinking, There's no way to take good pictures from up here. But then I looked through that camera and discovered that I liked how life looked through a telephoto lens. You could choose whatever you wanted to see and eliminate the rest.

I modeled my life as a photographer on the way athletes play their games. I don't like sitting in a stadium for two hours chitchatting and smiling. What do I have to look at? I know what I'm going to shoot. I've arrived at events just as the national anthem was ending. It used to piss off the other photographers. They're there three hours, four hours before the game. Boring.

But I never underestimated the value of a good rival. Mine was Neil Leifer. He started at SI in 1960, a year before I did, and he was a kid too—16 when he sold his first photo to the magazine. Neil took some of the greatest sports photos of all time. You know the one of Ali standing over Sonny Liston? That was Neil.

I was always worried Neil was going to get the cover, because he was so good at it. One time we're in Cleveland at the NFL championship game, and someone plunges across the goal line. Neil comes running over, and in his New York accent he says, "Cov-ah! Cov-ah! I even left room for the logo." As much as I wanted to kill him, I believed him.

It's amazing what Neil drove me to do. I was shooting the championship game between the Packers and the Giants in 1962 at Yankee Stadium, and it was brutally cold. I've heard players who were in the Ice Bowl say this day was colder. I had these metal camera straps that were sticking to my face when I tried to shoot, and my hands and feet were throbbing. I ended up crumpled in the end zone, on both knees, just frozen to the ground. I was about to give up. It was as if I'd been ice-water-boarded. Then I looked over at Neil, and he didn't even have gloves on! I thought, If he can go on, then I have to go on.

There was a lot of resentment from other members of the press when Neil and I were young. It certainly didn't cross my mind when I was 18 that we were representing the biggest sports magazine in the world.

We covered the World Series between the Yankees and the Dodgers in Los Angeles in '63. I had just turned 20, and Neil was almost 21. For Game 3 I was in the photo well on the first base side, and Neil was on the third base side, near the Dodgers' dugout. The Dodgers' Don Drysdale threw a shutout to win the game, and at the end Neil opened the gate and ran onto the field before the catcher, John Roseboro, could get to Drysdale. So you had this little guy out there, Neil, and the two players were trying to reach around him to hug.

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