If you were around and remember Dwight Clark and “The Catch,” or Carl Yastrzemski’s “Impossible Dream” season, or the looming hardwood dominance of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, chances are your precise visualizations of these athletes are from Sports Illustrated and photos taken by the magazine’s legendary staff photographer, Walter Iooss, Jr.
Known as “the poet laureate of sports,” Iooss (pronounced “Yose”) rose to fame when he started at SI in 1961 at the age of 17 and, in the subsequent decades, has shot countless stories, games, matches and events — and along the way also provided over 300 covers for the publication. This probably also means that, if you became an avid sports fan at any point since his debut, your head is a crammed scrapbook of Iooss images.
Over 60 of his best photographs — portraits as well as action shots and conceptual pieces; both insantly recognizable and less-known but equally arresting photos — are on display through Jan. 12 at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London. Titled “LEGENDS: the Sports Photography of Walter Iooss,” the exhibit was curated by Tanya Pohrt, Lyman Allyn staff curator, and all the pieces in the show are recent acquisitions, gifts to the Lyman Allyn from multiple donors in 2017 and 2018.
Pohrt has arranged the photographs logically but in inspired fashion, and they include depictions of baseball, basketball, football, golf, tennis, the Olympics and, in one dramatic room, a set of shots capturing youth sports in contemporary Cuba. Part of the magic of “LEGENDS” is that Pohrt isn’t a particularly rabid sports fan, which enabled her to see the work without history or context that might push the exhibit’s layout in perhaps anticipated fashion.
“There was a bit of a learning curve for me in terms of researching the individuals and things being depicted,” Pohrt says. “It was exciting and fun to familiarize myself with the athletes and the stories behind Iooss’s artistry. The more I learned about specific games or athletes, the more I was able to see his artistry and an ability to instinctively crystallize one moment that stands in for a larger career or sport.”
Indeed. Regardless of one’s acquaintanceship with the photographer and/or his work, the almost instant reaction to the collection of pieces in “LEGENDS” is to understand how Iooss is as much an artist as he is a journalist. There is innately blended into his photographs an array of wit and wonder, compassion and awe, and skill and professional detachment. To walk through the five rooms of the exhibit and take in years’ worth of craft is to come to believe Iooss is a man who, realizing early on that he had one of those “greatest jobs in the world” gigs, used it to learn as much about himself as he did his subjects and the world through the prism of sport.
The portraits are astonishing in approach and imagination — and the impression is that, while Iooss had plenty of aesthetic ideas about how to shoot the athlete, it was always in the context that would allow the subject’s persona to transcend the image: Serena Williams; Tiger Woods; LeBron James; Billie Jean King; Usain Bolt; Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra; Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier …
“If the show was just portraits, that would be enough,” Pohrt says. “Iooss captures so much about these athlete’s personalities in these photographs.”
She explains how they erected a banner touting the exhibition on the entry road to the museum that included a famous Iooss image of LeBron James. Pohrt says, laughing with disbelief, “Someone stole it! I’m pretty sure that’s never happened here before!”
In the label text below the image of James, Iooss descibed the photo shoot: “(James) walked in like a king that day, and he took over that room … I’ve never seen an athlete look like that … he was muscular, charming, articulate, the prince of hoops.”
Another portrait is a whimsical and playful image of Ford and Berra taken at a Yankees’ spring training as part of an SI story about Hall of Fame baseball players getting older. Both men are dressed in their vintage pinstriped uniforms, and the impression is of glory days and friendships happily revisited.
Iooss’ label text says, “I love this picture. For two guys in their 70s, they look cute; there was a little-boy quality to them.” Iooss then describes running into Ford and Berra a few years later. “Hey, Whitey,” he quotes Berra as saying, “Here’s that guy who took that horrible picture of us!”
The exhibit’s action shots are similarly spectacular, and it’s understandable if the viewer’s tendency is to draw closer and closer to an image as though to suddenly become part of the scene. Iooss seems to have an uncanny approach to angle and composition, or maybe a bit of luck in terms of just being in the right place at the right time. The shot of Clark’s 1982 catch of a Joe Montana pass in the 1982 National Conference Championship Game — despite being one of the most famous photographs ever — seems almost breathtaking in the context of the museum setting and the whole body of work. Ditto for the snap of Baltimore Orioles’ Cal Ripken taking an impromptu victory lap for frenzied fans after breaking Lou Gehrig’s “Iron Man” record for consecutive games played.
Conceptually, there’s a wall of Olympics photos that so poetically capture the grace and physicality of world-class athletes that they would have blown da Vinci’s mind in his physiology sketchbook days. And the shots of youngsters playing sports in Cuba, using antiquated or make-do equipment on streets or playgrounds, are shot in tones that instantly suggest images from poor American neighborhoods in the 1950s or ’60s. The difference, of course, is that Iooss shot them recently. As evocations of the eternal release and joy of sports, as well as disconcerting suggestions of third-world poverty, the pictures are stunning and thought-provoking.
“Giving the Cuba material its own room made sense,” Pohrt says. “Collectively, it’s a time-shock. There’s a self-awareness to what Iooss was doing that suggests a timelessness from our American perspective. But the kids’ limited material possessions and the background gives another perspective: how important sports are for these kids. I think it reminds Iooss of his own youth and the contrasts with their lives.”
As per those photographs’ having their own room, Pohrt’s layout for the whole exhibition subtly but effectively brings all the elements of Iooss’s gifts together. She started by simply inventorying what she had, writing up descriptions and doing homework on the athletes and events.
“I’m guessing (Iooss) had a bit of say in what we ultimately received as gifts because there’s a nice balance and representation,” Pohrt says. “So I sort of broke it down by sport rather than portraits in one room or action photographs. It made sense to group the basketball, tennis and baseball pictures together because of quantity. And the more we looked and saw what we had, the more the groupings suggested themselves within the space we had available.”
After spending so much time with such a rich variety of Iooss’s work, Pohrt says she is pleasantly uncertain as to what or who might be the photographer’s favorite sport(s) or athletes.
“I haven’t come across any opininons he’s expressed, and I’m frankly not sure if he HAS a favorite sport or a favorite sport or athlete to photograph,” she says. “I think that’s part of what makes him so great. He speaks through the images and ultimately lets them speak for themselves.”