With the launch of the basketball-inspired exhibition Transition Game, its curator Fabienne Stephan interviews iconic sports photographer Walter Iooss Jr.
Talking on his favourite photographic memories and past stars of his lens – including Michael Jordan and those he’s shot for his numerous Sports Illustrated covers – the interview, featured on CR Fashion Book, includes mention of his first ever portrait shoot (conducted in the basement of a boxer who was accused of murder) and a book that never worked out with Serena Williams.
See some of it, below;
Fabienne Stephan: Describe your first studio portrait?
Walter Iooss Jr: The first portrait that I did – in a sort of a studio – was actually in someone’s basement. I used three light bulbs. The subject was this boxer that Bob Dylan had written about in his song ‘The Hurricane,’ called Rubin Hurricane Carter. He lived in Patterson, New Jersey. He was a heavyweight champ who was arrested by the Patterson police for murder – even though he was innocent. I must have been 19 at the time and I lived in East Orange, New Jersey. I don’t remember how I got there, but I went to Patterson, and I was in his basement, and I did a portrait. In a sense, that was my first studio shot.
Looking at your images now, particularly of Michael Jordan, it’s hard to believe that none of them were ever retouched. How did you get them to be so perfect?
What you see is right out of the camera. No Photoshop – not a speck. I’m a great believer in taking a good picture and not Photoshopping to make it a good picture. I grew up in that world and that’s the world I still respect the most. A lot of people take great pictures, but most of them are touched up. I guess it’s normal now. A lot has changed since 1987, but whatever works for you is the way you have to go.
How does knowing that your images are going to be retouched effect the way you shoot?
In many ways it can help you: taking little things out, or darkening, or lightening things. Now, it’s easy to see everything as you’re shooting. The mystery is gone, but you can never go back to shooting chromes; it would be insane. Even shooting a 4×5 is almost archaic. I shoot film and the picture looks the same as if you shot it with a point and shoot. Things that make great pictures are always the same: great lighting and clarity. People hire you for a shoot, regardless of the kind of job it is, because they like your style. Every job that you go on, you have to take the picture for yourself, because if you don’t, then you’ve really failed the shoot. It’s very frustrating when you get a job and then the very things that you do best they don’t even want you to do.
I love the contrast in your Michael Jordan portraits, there is such a shift in pace between iconic action imagery like “Blue Dunk” and the intimacy of the polaroids of him by the phone. What was it like shooting with him?
He was always near the phone and the television channel changer. Those photos are from 1993 when we did a book together called “Rare Air,” which ended up becoming number one on the New York Times bestseller list. He was terrific to be around and he never flinched when you pointed a camera at him. If I point a camera at anybody they usually change what they’re doing because they’re not that comfortable. He was comfortable with me, and he knew that he looked good. You couldn’t take a bad picture of him.
Have you ever had a relationship with a female sports figure in the same way that you had one with Michael Jordan?
I was close to Chris Evert. I photographed her at her home a couple of times and we were great friends, but it’s not like I did a book with her. Her nickname was the Ice Maiden, but she was really the polar opposite of cold. She was funny and a great girl. Serena Williams and I were going to do a book together, but it never worked out. Maria Sharapova is great too. I shot her for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and she was very focused.
Does anyone have this larger than life personality, like the superhero quality that Michael Jordan exuded, that you would like to shoot today?
There’s a picture I want to do of LeBron James, but it’s impossible. I’ve tried and tried. I’d like to photograph Tiger Woods again also – to say goodbye – now that the best part of his career is over.
If you could shoot anyone in the world, who would it be?
If I could shoot anyone today it would be Bob Dylan. I love Bob Dylan. There’s someone. I mean…what a career. My father was a jazz musician, so I’ve always loved musicians. I have shot musicians, but it was a long time ago. I photographed Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, and Sonny and Cher for Atlantic Records. I like Pharrell also. He seems like a cool guy. Another great guy that I would have loved to have shot—if he hadn’t had just died – is Gregory Isaacs. He’s one of my favorite reggae singers. You know, they live the same life almost [musicians and athletes]. They’re off in their groups, they’re isolated, they’re on the road. Drinking, drugs, chicks… it’s all the same.
Read the full interview, here.
Image source: Crfashionbook.com