If you’ve ever tried to take photos at a sports event, you know how hard it can be. You click the shutter too early or too late. Images are out of focus. Or just plain boring, darn it!
Such frustrations should inspire you or anybody else to visit the Newseum, where a fascinating exhibit of Walter Iooss’ photographic art called “Athlete” is on display Friday through Dec. 31. Art is the right word because Iooss is a past master at capturing the heart and soul of sports on film or a digital card.
Iooss, 66, has been brightening the pages of Sports Illustrated since 1959, which makes this exhibit a nice half-century anniversary present. Even if you don’t recognize his name, you’ve surely eyeballed his most famous shots: Dwight Clark leaping to make “The Catch” that sent the 49ers to Super Bowl XVI in 1982, Joe Namath sunbathing at poolside before Super Bowl III in 1969 with admiring fans gathered about, Cheryl Tiegs in an alluring fishnet bathing suit for SI’s 1978 midwinter parade of female flesh.
(What’s that - you claim Cheryl Tiegs and the swimsuit issue aren’t related to sports? You might have a point, but who cares?)
Cathy Trost, the Newseum’s director of exhibit development, says the museum staff worked with Iooss for six months, with the photographer selecting the 40-odd images on display and writing accompanying captions. And, Iooss insists, making the selections was not as hard as you might think.
“Some of the pictures were easy to pick,” he explained Thursday during a press preview. “We could have had 10 of [Michael] Jordan or five of [Muhammad] Ali.”
Instead, to Iooss’ credit, the exhibit is marvelously diverse. In addition to renowned jocks like Jordan, Ali, Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Sandy Koufax, Pele, Michael Phelps, Serena Williams and Kobe Bryant et al, there are pictures of anonymous surfers in Hawaii and children playing stickball in Cuba.
“Anybody who has ever played sports will understand what this is about,” Iooss said of the stickball shot, which shows an intense youngster swinging a makeshift bat. “It’s a frozen moment. Nothing else in the world matters.”
Iooss admits in a caption that Jordan is his favorite athlete, which amounts to reciprocal praise because a nearby sign quotes MJ this way: “Walter is an artist looking for a shot, usually one that only he can see.”
Jordan is shown in two dissimilar shots: flying through the air toward the basket in an NBA slam dunk contest and sitting reflectively on a basketball at his home in a pose that seems to emulate Rodin’s famed sculpture of “The Thinker.”
Also present and accounted for is Ali. One picture shows him flashing a powerful left hook at Ernie Terrell in what Iooss says is the only Ali fight he ever shot in black and white.
In the most poignant offering, we see aging former rivals Ali and Joe Frazier side by side in boxing robes and showing the effects of debilitating diseases, Parkinson’s and diabetes, in 2003. The photo demonstrates clearly the fleeting nature of athleticism. And since Frazier still detests Ali, Iooss must have needed extraordinary diplomatic skills to get them together.
Other notable pictures show Wilt Chamberlain snatching a rebound in all his 7-foot-1 glory; Johnny Unitas straggling off the field near the end of his career; Palmer and Nicklaus talking at a table with heaping ashtrays before them; Pele hugging a soccer ball with his eyes closed; Lance Armstrong at rest on a motorcycle, of all things; and Lou Brock fleeing down the basepath toward home.
Then again, all the Iooss pictures are notable - even the portraits.
“That’s what I do now,” Iooss said. “The only event I still cover is the Super Bowl. I’m not that good anymore [at shooting action].”
Sight unseen, I beg to differ. It’s difficult to imagine Walter Iooss putting a camera to his eye and anything less than perfection resulting. Go see for yourself.