For almost 40 years sports photographer Walter Iooss has been shooting top athletes for Sports Illustrated. He also shoots the magazine’s renowned Swimsuit issue. Julia Molony talked to him to discover how he went from being a sports fan with a camera to being dubbed by Vanity Fair magazine as ‘the luckiest photographer on earth’.
Walter Iooss was just 16 when he started taking pictures, 17 when he was hired to shoot his first assignment for Sports Illustrated and 19 when he made it on to the masthead full-time.
Naturally, for a consummate alpha male, the preoccupations of Iooss’s work are unapologetically masculine – great athletes and gorgeous girls. “I like to make my subjects look heroic,” he says. Which is appropriate really, because it was out of the heroism on the pitch, those great moments of triumph and drama in sport, that his love for photography was born. He remembers, even now, the exact moment the two converged.
“My father introduced me to photography,” he says. “He was a musician but he was a good amateur photographer and he loved football and baseball, and that was one thing we shared. And then when he bought his camera, he got season tickets to the New York Giants [American football team].
“That’s where I put my first roll of film through and went back to my house in New Jersey and processed it. I unlocked my future somehow that day. I remember standing there by the sink and holding it up and something magical happened.”
As an adolescent kid from a broken home, photography, like sport, was a pleasure he shared with his father, who had left when he was four and then been estranged from the family for several years. It took on a special significance between them. “We’d shoot together. It was something we did together and then I’d process the film.” He made his name as a cub photojournalist shooting action sports from the sidelines; indeed, some of those intense, split second, history-in-the making shots remain his most famous, such as The Catch, capturing the winning touchdown at the1982 National Football Conference (NFC) Championship game.
These days, however, he goes to games simply as a fan. “I never shoot anyone moving anymore. It’s all portraits these days… I’d rather control my subjects than sit under a basket and just shoot action,” he says. Now, he prefers to be master of his environment, which calls on a whole different set of skills and a more layered, psychological approach. “I feel now I’m like an old coach,” he says of the way he now relates to his subject. “I figure I can work them somehow to get what I need.” What he’s looking for, when in the room with an athlete, goes beyond the glory-building exercise of celebrating power and form. He’s after some sort of emotional disclosure.
“Physical form obviously is an important part of it,” he says. “But you know you sort of shoot in different ways. You shoot for a very powerful portrait or you try to shoot and catch ’em off guard, where there is a moment that is sort of surprising and just takes you away from the ordinary… A lot of the times the best pictures are happening when your camera is down, because the subject relaxes.” That said, he admits that when faced with a big star, the goal is simple. “You try to make them look like a star.”
“You know you’ve got [basketball star] Michael Jordan and it’s not so hard to take a good picture of him. Is it more difficult to take a great picture? I think so, yeah. You’re always going for something dramatic.” The two strands of his work complement each other well. “The Swimsuit issue is sort of a glorious thing,” he says, rather stating the obvious. “You get up for 10 or 11 mornings and shoot early, and then you go back and shoot late. There’s always a chance to shoot a great picture.”
Obviously, there are differences between shooting an athlete and a girl on a beach, but I think you’ve a far better chance of taking a good photograph of a girl on a beach, because the models come to be photographed,” he explains. “They’re there for two or three days and you’ve got the best light in the morning and the afternoon. Their job is to make great pictures.” Shooting the Swimsuit issue is not just its own reward, however, it’s also a string to his bow that serves him well during the rest of the year. “It’s so good for your reputation among the athletes, because they generally like hot girls. It’s a nice calling card because they’ve all seen it on TV. They all know about it so your reputation precedes you a little.”
Perhaps it was predictable that Iooss would end up married to a model. He met his wife Eva, who is originally from Holland, at the apartment of a mutual friend. Despite initial reticence on her side, he eventually convinced her to go out with him. When it came to getting married, however, it was his turn to drag his feet. “I was all over the place,” he remembers of that phase in his life. “But she was the right one. We were on and off for a couple of years; she went back to Holland and she sort of almost forced me to get married. I’d seen such bad marriages for my whole life so I was terrified of marriage.”
The couple have been married for 35 years and Eva now works as an artist. “She wasn’t a model for long. I don’t think she really enjoyed it, but she was sort of the bedrock of the family while I travelled and raised a good family while I was away. She was always a very talented painter too, but never had the chance when she grew up, and obviously not much of chance with two kids and no nanny,” he says, admitting that her ambitions necessarily took a back seat to his own.
She provided the stability at home, while he was busy travelling and engaged with a job which offered “zero structure… I realise it more now than I did then. There was no structure, you could never make plans.” The couple have two sons, both of whom have followed their father into the industry. Christian is director of photography at Golf Digest Companies and is “my boss for 20 days of the year now,” Iooss notes dryly. Bjorn works as a fashion photographer and is even starting to take up the burdensome mantle of the Swimsuit issue. This November he’s going to be shooting part of it. “So it’s going to be two Ioosses in one issue. They’ll think there’s some sort of collusion going on.”
Collusion or otherwise, the power of the image was something impressed upon the two boys from a very young age, by default if not design. “I wasn’t intentionally trying to groom them to become photographers, but it’s something they enjoyed watching me do. I brought them to a lot of places, to meet the athletes and see what I was doing. They’ve been all over the world.
“Obviously it’s something that you have in common, you can talk about. You can feed off each other, which is really nice. The two of them, and my wife, everyone can bounce things off each other.”
Although his sons may be snapping at his heels, Iooss has no plans to retire any time soon. Which is just as well, as his diary is full for the foreseeable future. For one thing, he gets too much pleasure from working. “I don’t want to give up everything I’ve worked for yet. I don’t know if I’ll ever retire. It crosses my mind. I don’t know what the next step is. I’ve got three more years of contracts, so we’ll see what happens in three years. I’ll always have jobs I think, it’s just a matter of how much I want to work.”
For now, he shows no sign of wanting to slow down. The principle that keeps him going is simple. “I hate when I have nothing ahead of me,” he says, “nothing down the line to shoot.”
© Julia Molony 2016