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.
November 14, 1994
"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.
There is no American sporting event more treacherous for a photographer than the Super Bowl, with its lumpen mobs surging up and down the field trying desperately not to miss the game's turning point. Iooss has covered all 28 Super Bowls, and last January he got SI's cover picture of Dallas Cowboy running back Emmitt Smith—Iooss's 11th Super Bowl cover—even though he had not shot another football game that season and was one of 13 SI photographers at the game.
For a third of a century Iooss has captured some of the most memorable moments in sports—the game-winning reception by the Pittsburgh Steelers' John Stallworth in the 1980 Super Bowl, the Catch by San Francisco's Dwight Clark in the 1982 playoffs against Dallas—and created others from his own imagination. "A lot of guys have action happen in front of them, and they still don't get the picture," says SI deputy picture editor Steve Fine. "Walter always gets the great action picture, and he can take an idea for a feature picture that somebody else has and turn it into a work of art."
"The angle I shoot is the best angle," Iooss says. "There are no other angles."
Many of Iooss's most celebrated photographs were produced in the full-dress battle of game action, but he has also taken some of the most famous—or infamous, if you happen to make your living as a high school librarian—pictures of beach action since Robert Capa's shots of the American landing at Normandy. In Iooss's case, there were no bullets flying as he stormed the beachhead at, say, the Seychelle Islands for the magazine's annual swimsuit issue, but occasionally there were daggers drawn.
Cheryl Tiegs was already something of a diva in the fashion world in 1978 when Iooss took her picture in a white fishnet bathing suit on a riverbank in Brazil, but she was not yet what that one frame of film—which showed a side of Tiegs that people hadn't seen before—would transform her into: one of the most famous people on the planet.
"Cheryl was very annoyed we were photographing another girl while she was waiting," recalls senior editor Jule Campbell, "and I could see she wanted to go back to the hotel. I went over and whispered to Walter that we had to shoot Cheryl, and he was annoyed that I was interrupting him. It was a gray day, with terrible light, so I asked Cheryl if she'd mind getting wet. Not because I wanted to be able to see through her suit more—I just wanted her skin to get wet because I thought maybe there would be highlights. Walter snapped it, but her arms were at her side, she wasn't posing, and she didn't look happy." She did, however, look practically naked.
"I was at Cheryl's house in California after that issue came out, and the phone wouldn't stop ringing," Iooss says. "Everybody was suddenly after her. I'd never been with a person whose life was actually changing the moment you were there. I said, 'You know what, Cheryl, it's like a coin on its edge. The moment it falls down, your old life is over.' "
In many ways Iooss's old life was ending at about that same time. Like spies, swimsuit pictures are shot at dawn, and for the first time in his career, Iooss discovered that the morning sun was as beautiful—and just as fleeting—as any halfback who ever ran to daylight, Iooss had fiercely resisted early wake-up calls. Two years before, he had shot six frames of Tiegs on a beach in Cancun, Mexico, and then muttered to Campbell, "I can't work this early." One of those six frames became the first of his seven swimsuit covers. "He loves the play of light and shadows now," says Campbell.
"He wasn't easy to work with then," Campbell continues. "He was still a little boy in many ways. In the early days I was using only fashion photographers, and when I first used Walter, he hadn't done women before, so he was quite excited. Walter kept running around the girls, looking for angles. I think he gave it a very fresh approach."
A fresh approach is also evident in the only picture taken of Iooss's wedding. It is a black-and-white shot of Walter and his bride, Eva, standing on the sidewalk outside New York's City Hall enjoying a hot dog. Iooss had met Dutch model Eva Faase one hot summer day in 1974 at the apartment of a woman he knew. "I walked in, and there was Eva, lying on the couch in her underwear," Walter says. "I liked her immediately. But she did not like me. She thought I was deranged, with my wild shades and sideburns, and she told her friend not to leave her alone with me."
They were married two years later. But the City Hall ceremony "was not the way to do it, and I regret it now," says Iooss. "It was like, couple, couple, couple, next! It looked like a catalog shoot. It couldn't have been uglier. After the ceremony we bought Sabrett's hot dogs from a street vendor. Then I left her at the apartment and went to the office."
This was not particularly surprising behavior, for Iooss considered the Time & Life Building "a cathedral," no less sacred for being a secular film drop at which he had been making devotional offerings since the age of 16. "That building has been such a part of my life," he says. "When all of my friends went away to college, and my mother was going crazy because it looked like I might turn into some kind of derelict, I would go to the Time & Life Building, and it was like a home, a refuge. I would get out the old volumes of the magazine and sit for hours—miserable—looking at the pictures, dreaming that someday I could do this."
At his home in East Orange, N.J., he had lined an entire room with pictures from SI and Sport, and it was not uncommon for Iooss to play stickball for 12 hours straight, pitching until his arm was limp. "I imagine sports were some sort of therapy for me," he says, "because life at home wasn't the greatest." Iooss's parents were divorced when he was four, and for the next four years he was not permitted to see his father, a stand-up bass player who had worked with Billie Holiday and with Benny Goodman's band. "It still bothers me," Walter says. "We had so much in common. But that's the way the courts were in those days. There had to be somebody to blame, and my father, being a musician, was obviously the curse of the neighborhood.
"After my parents were divorced, they replaced my father with a TV set," Iooss adds. "It was a Dumont TV with a screen about five inches across. I think that was the beginning of my visual sensibility, watching that little box. I guess the idea was, It's 1948, we'll give him a TV, maybe it'll make him feel better. And I did love it, but not as much as I loved my father."
When his father's exile was over, Walter began to visit him in Brooklyn. "I spent the entire summer in Brooklyn the year of Rock Around the Clock," Iooss says. "Let me tell you, this was an education. That's when I learned about J.D. cards [which the police compiled on troublesome kids]. There was even a song, I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent, by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Meanwhile Frankie's shooting heroin." It was also during that summer of rock-and-roll that Iooss began to dance, developing a habit from which he has not fully recovered. "You couldn't help but dance," he says. "I danced so much I had calluses on my fingers from popping them all the time."
His trigger finger remained remarkably callus-free until his father got season tickets to New York Giant football games when Walter was 15. His dad insisted on taking pictures from the grandstand with a 300-millimeter telephoto lens. "I didn't want to use it," Iooss says, "mainly because the guys in front of us were these big truck drivers, and any time there was a big play, they'd jump up and smack their heads. I thought, If this is photography, I don't want any part of it."
It was midseason before Walter would consent to even look through the camera's long lens. "And I discovered then, life through a telephoto looks pretty good, because you eliminate everything you don't want to see," he says. When he got home from the stadium, he began to practice by photographing his friends as they played stickball and ran pass routes. He shrewdly charged his playmates $5 each for prints. He also used to travel south to shoot football games at Princeton, and he used the same ploy to get onto the field there, exchanging prints for access.
"Now I'm starting to feel hot, so I call up SPORTS ILLUSTRATED," he says. "Why I'm calling SI at 16, I don't know. But where else was I going to call? I got hold of the assistant picture editor and told him I had a portfolio. He said, 'There are no nudes in it, are there?' Nudes? I had never even seen a nude."
Iooss made an appointment to show his pictures to the magazine's editors in New York. "It was easy for me to get out of school, because I had braces on my teeth from the eighth grade until I was a senior in high school," he says, "so I was always going to the orthodontist in New York." Iooss showed up at the Time & Life Building with wire on his teeth and a "Chicago box" haircut (long on the side, crew cut on top). A few months later the magazine bought one of his pictures of a Princeton game for the opening spread of the 1960 college football preview issue.
"Walter is the only real genius there has ever been in sports photography," says Leifer. "He came on the scene already very, very advanced, taking these brilliant pictures almost intuitively, like a pianist who can play everything by car." Leifer, who at 14 had begun delivering sandwiches for Manhattan's Stage Deli after school to pay for new lenses, was himself a prodigy who went on to take one of the most famous pictures in all of sports—a snarling Muhammad Ali standing over the recumbent Sonny Liston after his celebrated knockout in Lewiston, Maine, in 1965 (page 66)—among dozens of heart-stopping theatrical moments. And yet Leifer often played Salieri to Iooss's Mozart. "I was always the first person at the stadium, my equipment working brilliantly," Leifer says. "Walter would arrive during the national anthem, pounding on his motor drive because he hadn't bothered to check it before leaving for the game."
If Iooss was up in the stands with his father and a long lens, it was almost certain that Leifer had figured out a way to get down to the field. "Every time I would see him, I'm thinking, How did this little redheaded punk get a credential?" recalls Iooss. "He was always driving me crazy, always a step ahead of me." Iooss's father finally called down to Leifer one day at a New York Titan game and asked if Leifer would meet with his son, perhaps even give the lad a few pointers. Leifer was 18. Like some sceptered grandee, he received Iooss in the lobby of the Time & Life Building. It was a meeting to which only Damon Runyon writing for The Weekly Reader could have done justice.
During the '60s and '70s, Iooss and Leifer competed endlessly for the magazine's cover, a prize each won so often that between them they account for seven years worth of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED covers. "We were at a game one time, and some guy goes through the line for a touchdown," Iooss says. "Neil comes running up to me, screaming, 'I left room for the logo! Cover! Cover!' I wanted to slap him, but I also believed him. That kind of thing always helped push me."
One of Iooss's first big assignments was to photograph the frigid NFL championship game between the Giants and the Green Bay Packers at Yankee Stadium in 1962. "It was the first time in my life I almost gave up," Iooss says. "I remember kneeling in the end zone with my knees frozen to the turf. I couldn't move my hands. My feet were throbbing with pain, and I had these metal straps around my cameras that would stick to my face so that I'd have to pull them off my skin. I finally said, 'I can't go on, I just can't go on.' And I look at Neil, and the little——'s not even wearing gloves! I decided if that bastard could go on, I could go on."
The rivalry remained heated at the championship game between the Cowboys and the Packers at Green Bay's Lambeau Field in 1967. "My wake-up call that morning said, 'It's 10 a.m. and 10 below,' " Iooss recalls. "I kept telling myself it wasn't that bad, but I knew it was awful. I tried rationalizing that it had to get warmer, but the temperature just kept dropping." By game time it was-16°.
"Every time I looked over at Walter," Leifer says, "he was standing by the sideline heater, warming his hands. And every time something happened that day, it happened right in front of me. I was having a great day. And then came the only play that mattered—Bart Starr's plunge through the line with 13 seconds left—and I saw that I had a better spot than Walter."
Iooss's spot was the least of his problems. "You'd put film in, and it would snap," he says. "Try to wind it—snap. When Green Bay got the ball for its final drive, I knew I could not load another roll of film. I'm sitting in the end zone with four frames left, and there were four downs to play, so I knew it was going to be one shot per down. The steam was pouring from everyone's mouth. Then came the famous plunge through the line."
Iooss fired off his final frame of the day and got the picture that ran in the magazine—the only picture that mattered—while Leifer ended up with an entire roll filled with the rear end of the referee, who moved just as the ball was snapped. "Walter has an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time and make the pictures come to him," says Fine.
"I've seen Walter be at the wrong place and get the right picture," Leifer says, "and I've seen him be at the right place with the wrong camera and still get the right picture. It's not true that Walter is luckier than other photographers. It's his gift. Walter has taken a lot of chances. Using his approach the probability of missing is huge. But he doesn't miss."
And he rarely loses his well-cultivated cool, a Zen-like state of readiness for those decisive moments. "He invites disaster because he loves to feed off that and create something great that he might not have considered before," says Dan Jenkins Jr., one of Iooss's former assistants.
Although, at 51, Iooss has settled becomingly into his postadolescence, he was once the doo-wopping, shing-a-linging, Philly-freezing embodiment of chaos theory, his life a happy accident waiting for a place to happen. He was known as Coast-to-Coast Iooss before there were frequent-flier miles, just as he was known as a man who could be counted on to bring his own red lightbulbs to parties. At the height of the '60s Iooss looked deep within himself and then told a seeker of truth, "Actually, you could say my specialty is the Funky Broadway."
Sixteen months later Richard Nixon was elected president of the U.S. on a platform that consisted primarily of stopping subversives like Iooss. "That's when I started to grow my hair and show up in scarves, bell-bottoms, outrageous shades, rings, and chains around my neck," Iooss says. "When I went to Knoxville, Tennessee, in a see-through shirt to cover college football's first game on artificial turf, everyone was staring at me. My assistant and I got to the rental-car counter, and the girl says, 'Y'all going to a Halloween party?' Meanwhile it's November. That happened a lot."
Before the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Roy Terrell, who was an assistant managing editor at SI, summoned Iooss to his office and informed him that because of the Mexican government's repression of student protests, he wanted Iooss to cut his hair. Iooss declined, so the magazine sent him anyway. But when Iooss's beloved Philadelphia Phillies went into their final series of the season, he got permission to head back to Connie Mack Stadium before the Olympics ended.
"He ran home from Mexico City because at that point Walter was interested only in baseball, football and basketball—the American sports," says Leifer. "He's grown intellectually since then. Part of the reason he still has the fire you need to stay out there is that he keeps growing. It's easy to have a hot month; a lot of guys have done that. Walter has had a hot 30 years."
During the turbulent period in the early '70s when athletes were beginning to challenge their coaches and institutions such as the press, Iooss befriended two of the most difficult stars: the Phillies' Richie (Call Me Dick) Allen and the Milwaukee Bucks' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who at that time feared for his life following a massacre of fellow Moslems at a building he owned in Washington, D.C. Iooss had been told that Abdul-Jabbar would never pose for a portrait, but when Iooss showed up in Milwaukee with an album from his friend Les McCann, the jazz bandleader, "The next thing I knew, Kareem was sitting for me."
"Walter makes the subjects of his pictures his friends," says Fine. "Then he draws them into the shooting with his charm. They end up wanting to make a good picture as much as he does."
One snake he was never able to charm was John McEnroe, whose campaigns of terror at Wimbledon Iooss covered as a combat photographer might have. "It became almost like a war," Iooss says. "He would look at me and try to intimidate me. McEnroe hated photographers, he hated distractions, and what he hated most was the sound of the motors when we would rewind. I was always closing in on him. I wanted him to notice me, because I wanted to talk to him."
The day after he lost the 1980 Wimbledon final to Bjorn Borg, McEnroe found himself in the British Airways lounge at London's Heathrow Airport with Iooss, who asked his friend Arthur Ashe to introduce them. "Not me," replied Ashe. "I've seen him mistreat his mother, his father, everyone he's ever been around." Ashe's wife, Jeannie, also a photographer, offered to take Iooss over. McEnroe listened to her introduction, then began fulminating at Iooss. "Can't you just shoot one roll of film during a match?" he whined. "Why do you have to bother me? You're assassins. You're all assassins."
During the semifinals of the U.S. Open a few months later, Iooss was rewinding film and reloading his camera during a changeover. "Suddenly there was no noise," Iooss says. "I looked up, and there was McEnroe. He said, 'You promised! You're a hypocrite, you're the biggest hypocrite I ever met.' " Iooss didn't know what promise McEnroe was talking about, since he had made none. After McEnroe lost the next point, he fired a tennis ball a few inches from Iooss's head. "That's a relationship that never got too far," Iooss says.
He had better luck with McEnroe's nemesis, Borg, whom he had photographed—and idolized—for years before they finally found themselves playing together in a celebrity doubles match on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Iooss had brought along his two sons, then 11 and seven years old, but to avoid any awkward situations, he encouraged them just to give Borg a friendly wave from the stands. "I couldn't even introduce my children to Bjorn," Iooss says. "What was I supposed to say? 'Hi, this is Christian Bjorn Iooss. And this is Bjorn Iooss.' Borg would have gotten a restraining order against me."
There have been two occasions during his career when Iooss was allowed to roam beyond the sidelines completely unrestrained, to go through the looking glass. He spent a season with Michael Jordan to produce the elegant book Rare Air, which climbed this year to the most rarefied air of all—No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list. And Iooss devoted nearly two years leading up to the 1984 Summer Olympics to taking the photographs in Shooting for the Gold, a book on the athletes of the Games that was commissioned by a Japanese film manufacturer. To do that book Iooss had to quit SPORTS ILLUSTRATED after more than 20 years. "I didn't want to leave SI," he says. "It was like cutting my heart out."
While shooting diver Greg Louganis for the book, Iooss experienced the "transcendent moment" of his career. "It was like God jumped in your camera for one picture and said, 'O.K., this is it,' " he says. "I was moving the camera so quickly that it was taking the red of the sky and swirling it. It looked like the flames of hell coming out of the pool. I was very excited about this shot, so when Louganis finally looked at it, I was just waiting to get stroked. He takes one look at it, hands the picture back to me and goes, 'I'm bent.' I said, 'Excuse me?' He says, 'I'm bent. Look at me. I'm crooked.' And he walks out.
"At first I couldn't believe it, but then I realized that we each see something different in a photograph," Iooss says. "To me that was as good an action picture as I'll ever take. What really establishes a great photographer is when he creates an image that has his signature. This is what we all want, to make an image that we control. Backgrounds, setups, lighting, composition—whatever's there is there for a reason. Controlling a picture is what the art of photography is about, because most of our lives are out of control. If you can put a person in position where you want him, with the light just right, it's yours, it's no one else's."
Back again, in his fourth decade of shooting for SI, Iooss has begun to develop similarly proprietary feelings about the magazine. "I'm such a part of the look of that magazine," he says, not boastfully. Iooss's eye began to wander from the weekly thrill ride of news photography to the more stately pace of feature work during the '80s. "And then I found out I need this, I need to work for SI," he says. "You can't fight what you are. Where else can I take these pictures? I still love to see my pictures published. So why fight it?"
His recent pictures of hitting stars Ken Griffey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners and Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox, taken two weeks before the start of the baseball strike, gave Iooss the opportunity to combine his flair for the dramatic with an important news story. He meticulously lit the two players and shot them back-to-back for the cover and then separately for individual feature stories, hoping to show, he says, "everything that's good about the game of baseball, and why they should keep playing." The players went out anyway, but Iooss's images remained indelible in memory, like ghosts, through the long silences of autumn.
On Sept. 4, Iooss covered his first regular-season football game in five years when the New England Patriots opened in Miami, at Joe Robbie Stadium, where the Florida Marlins also play. "There was a deluge right before the game 'that turned the baseball infield into a quagmire," Iooss says. "The sidelines were clear, like they used to be 20 years ago, so I was free to go wherever I wanted to go. It was like everything was flashing back. Every place I went was the right place. I had my son Christian there as an assistant, and I told him we needed to move to the other end of the field because something was about to happen. He's looking at me kind of funny, like, how did I know?"
On the very next play Miami receiver Irving Fryar caught a 35-yard pass from quarterback Dan Marino to win the game, and Iooss had the entire three-frame sequence—and the cover shot—in perfect focus and in the magazine the following week. "On TV that night you could see the catch, then you saw Christian throw his hands up and leap in the air, just like I had after Jimmy Orr's catch. He was even in a white shirt so you could see him better on TV. It was like my whole career had come full circle. I know now that wherever they send me is the right place for me to be."
The place he's in is the best place. There are no other places.