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 cliché—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.
September 20, 1964
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."
Not everyone is eager to do the Death Dive. Three years ago in the early camp of the Buffalo Bills of the American Football League, an end watched Laughead put some players through the Death Dive and clearly did not approve. When it came his turn, the end shook his head. "Naw, Tex, I ain't gonna do that," he said. "You do what I tell you," said Laughead, who deals bluntly with insurrection. "Buster Ramsey ain't the coach today. I am." The end shrugged. "O.K., Tex," he said, "but I reserve the right to dislike it."
"We used to use a football as a prop in the Death Dive," Laughead said, as a car stopped in the gravel driveway at Alabama and Coach Bear Bryant got out. "But we don't anymore. A kid at SMU came down on the ball and deflated himself. When they rolled him over, he had turned purple." Laughead lowered his voice as if afraid Bryant might hear. "They had to use mouth-to-mouth restitution, or whatever you call it, to bring him to."
Scraping noses or bending wrists in the Death Dive is not as serious a matter to Laughead as breaking a camera. Among the 1,500 pounds of equipment that Laughead and Bradley load into their station wagon for their 9,000-mile spring-training journey are duplicates of everything. But still Laughead is careful. Caution has been drilled into him painfully.
"The only guy I ever trusted to throw a football at the camera was Sam Baugh," Laughead said. "Sam would warn me not to move my head an inch. Then he would throw a bullet pass from 10 feet, and the ball would curve and zip right past my ear. But in the picture it would look like it was coming straight into the lens. A few years after Baugh left TCU they had a quarterback at Texas A & M that the coach said was better than Baugh. The coach wanted the same kind of picture. The kid didn't want to do it, and I sure didn't want to do it, but the coach insisted. I woke up in the infirmary. From 10 feet that kid threw a bullet pass, hit me between the eyes and knocked me cold."
More considerate of Laughead's good health and head was Bulldog Turner, who possibly owes his All-Pro career as a Chicago Bear to a Laughead photograph. Laughead met Turner in 1938 when he photographed the Hardin-Simmons Cowboys. Laughead decided to take advantage of the nickname of the small west Texas school. He shot pictures of players in cowboy hats and chaps, riding and roping. Then the Hardin-Simmons publicity man produced a 350-pound calf, and Laughead asked if anyone on the squad was strong enough to pick it up.
"A kid named Clyde Turner, who was about to be kicked off the team for disciplinary reasons, yanked that calf up off the ground and took off running around the field with it," said Laughead. "He must have lapped the field six times with that calf on his back. I went back to Dallas and wrote about how Bulldog Turner was a Little All-America. I made that up, of course. Nobody had ever heard of him. But the picture got on the wires, and Hardin-Simmons got 6,000 clippings of it from newspapers. The clips cost a penny apiece and nearly busted the school's budget. They couldn't kick Turner off the team after that."
Kyle Rote, former Southern Methodist All-America who has now retired after a brilliant career with the New York Giants, was the most photogenic athlete Laughead ever shot. "He showed speed and power," Laughead said, "and when you can do that in a picture you've got something. I like them to blaze, blow, blast and burn. Usually the best athletes are the best in pictures, too. Doak Walker was an exception. He took little mincing steps that looked terrible in pictures. But Walker was the most popular athlete I ever shot. When he was a freshman at SMU I promised him free publicity pictures. Before he graduated I had to furnish 39,000 pictures that I would have sold for $1 each. We're good friends, but I was glad to see him go."
Many of the 40,000-odd negatives Laughead and Bradley shoot of athletes each year are done during their spring tour. The two are on the road for more than six weeks and drive as much as 500 miles overnight in an effort to shoot one school per day. Rain occasionally knocks them off that schedule, but they move fast—shooting the average football squad in three hours (some photographers take two or three days for the same job), breaking for lunch, then shooting the basketball team, loading the wagon and driving on to a motel and a dinner of greasy food that would gag Attila the Hun.
The routine seldom varies. The station wagon, with Bradley at the wheel and Laughead puffing a cigar and holding a thermos of ice water between his knees, arrives on the campus about noon. At Alabama, Laughead and Bradley tumbled out of the wagon and worked for an hour to set up their equipment. Both men were staggeringly tired. The night before, driving over from Atlanta, they had run out of gas near Irondale, Ala. Bradley had coasted up to a very tough-looking beer joint and pool hall on the highway. The drinkers and pool players were already at the glazed-eyes plateau, and their voices swooped above the country music on the juke box. "I don't know if I'd go in there, Father," said Bradley.
"Don't worry, son," Laughead said. "I could talk an Eskimo out of his underwear."
Laughead put on his Snuffy Smith hat and took a gas can out of the rear of the station wagon. Wearing his red vest, he opened the screen door of the beer joint and walked in and set the gas can on the bar. The drinkers and pool players froze as they stared at the red vest and the hat and the man who had the audacity to wear them. Laughead turned on his big Texas smile.
"Friend," he said to the bartender, "me and my partner have run into a desperate—"
"Take that can off the bar and get the hell out of here," the bartender said, and Laughead hastily retreated. "It doesn't always work," said Laughead.
Neither did a quart of gas that Laughead borrowed from the motor that operates his photographic lights. The gas sent the station wagon over the hill to a gas station, but the station was closed tight. At 1 a.m. Laughead was standing on the highway with his gas can, thumbing a ride into Leeds, Ala.
The next afternoon, as the Alabama players came onto the field, Laughead buttoned his embroidered vest (the vest is reversible; names of the professional teams Laughead shoots in July are embroidered on the other side) and pulled down the brim of his crumpled hat that prompts some people to call him "The Mad Hatter."
"I paid $1.95 for this hat when I moved to Texas from Ohio as a wire-service photographer in 1936," he said. "I was making a lousy $42.50 a week then. But it wasn't so bad for a kid who had grown up in Detroit cleaning Ty Cobb's dog kennels for free tickets to Tiger games and who made a D in photography at Ohio State. Somebody told me I had to have a hat like this if I was going to live in Texas. Now I'm afraid to have it cleaned and blocked or it will fall apart. Once I left it in a restaurant in North Carolina and drove back 65 miles to get it. I never wear a hat in normal human life, but the players expect me to wear it when I take their pictures. I tried to give it up one year. When I got to Ole Miss the players went on strike until I got it again. You should have heard them give that Rebel Yell when I got the hat out of the car."
Laughead looked at the Alabama players who were posing for Bradley's still pictures and were eying Laughead as if wondering what anguish he would put them through this time. "The juniors and seniors are my best friends," Laughead said. "For weeks before I get here they tell the younger guys about me, about how crazy I am and how I knock them around, and get them so mad and so scared that they really put out for the pictures. Most of them, anyway. Some of these donkeys just can't do it. I take a few shots so as not to hurt their feelings, but I know I ain't making any money out of anybody except the first three teams, and not all of them." Laughead sells his pictures to the schools and the pros by the print and receives neither guarantee nor expenses.
"Huckin' and buckin'!" a player yelled at Laughead, who laughed.
"They all know that," said Laughead. "A few years ago we were shooting at a southern college, and I couldn't get the guy to do what I wanted. One of his pals told him all I wanted him to do was the old Huckle-Buck. I'd never heard of that dance, but the kid caught on right away. I told the rest of them I wanted them huckin and buckin', because I thought that's what the guy had said. Didn't find out until just awhile ago that what he had said was Huckle-Buck, and it's too late now to change it."
Laughead introduced himself to the first Alabama player, who had a scab on his nose. "Who's been walking on your face, son?" asked Laughead. "A little bit of everybody," the player said. Laughead asked if the player were a running back, and the player said he guessed he was. "Well, we'll try to make you look like one, son, no matter what Coach Bryant thinks you are," said Laughead, grabbing a football and starting his insane dance, weaving and hopping, with his red vest flapping and his hat falling off. "A-huckin' and a-buckin', son, a-huckin' and a-buckin'!"
In less than a minute, Laughead had shot enough pictures of the halfback to satisfy himself. Laughead shoots from a camera stand that he calls a "ground pod." He built the stand 20 years ago from 38¢ worth of aluminum. "The idea is to get them against the sky and not get any trees growing out of their ears," he explained as the next player chalked his name on a blackboard for identification. "The most important thing about an athlete is his legs. That's why we shoot from this angle—to emphasize the legs. With a great passer we'll also shoot to emphasize his arm, but when a quarterback is a terrific scrambler, like Fran Tarkenton of the Vikings, we stick with the legs. The photographer of one of the pro teams I don't shoot tries to get this same legs angle, but he does it by digging a trench and standing in it. I'm waiting to see what happens the first time a player falls in that trench and breaks a leg."
As he talked, Laughead kept jumping up to demonstrate, to implore, to flatter, to offend—using whatever tactic he thought would produce the result he wanted. His camera was anchored on its ground pod. The film was in a metal drum from which Laughead can shoot 185 pictures in a single roll and then detach the drum and mail it back to his Dallas lab. Fifteen years ago, in the formative days of his mass football business, Laughead shot with old-fashioned film holders and had to spend the nights kneeling on a towel in motel shower stalls loading 300 holders for the next morning.
Alabama Coach Bear Bryant walked out and asked if it would be necessary to call the trainer yet. Bryant was smiling, but that is a subject about which Laughead is rather sensitive. "Not yet. I ain't hurt anybody yet," Laughead said. "But you know, I almost killed a guy once at the University of Texas. Halfback named Gib Dawson. He was the star of the team, but he didn't show up for the picture session. We searched all over for him. Shooting the Texas team without shooting Dawson was like shooting a movie about Lindbergh and never mentioning that he flew the Atlantic. But we finally had to give up on Dawson. I got in my car, started the motor and paused to light a cigar. I heard the most God-awful yowling from underneath the car. It was Dawson. He'd gone to sleep under there. If I hadn't stopped to light that cigar, I'd have killed him."
Laughead, sweating heavily, trotted over to urge a tackle into the Death Dive. "Remember," Laughead said, "keep your arms over your head, close your fists, keep your tongue in your mouth and land on your nice manly chest. We won't hurt him, Coach Bryant. You can't hurt an Alabama boy, anyhow. They're too tough." The tackle did a belly whopper that shook the earth, but his tongue was out. Laughead rushed out and gave the tackle a lecture on acting that Director Elia Kazan would have been proud of. Bryant and the players laughed. The tackle jarred the earth again. "Great, son!" shouted Laughead. "If I was paying big salaries, you'd get one. Especially for them ears."
The shooting over and the Alabama football team immortalized for another year, a weary Laughead sat down on the fender of the station wagon and wiped his face with his sleeve. It had been weeks since he and Bradley had stopped anywhere long enough even to get laundry done. And now they had to load up their equipment, drive to the gym, unload their equipment, shoot the basketball team, load up their equipment again and drive to Memphis—260 miles away—and shoot Memphis State the next day.
"Huckin' and buckin'!" a player yelled.
"That's right, son, a-huckin' and a-buckin'!" Laughead shouted, jumping off the fender and dancing around like a maddened Navaho. After all, there were only 30 or 40 more teams left to shoot. Then he would be finished—for this season.