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|| News Item: Posted 2008-05-06

Review: 'Athlete' by Walter Iooss
Brad Mangin looks at the newest book from Sports Illustrated's legendary photographer.

By Brad Mangin,

Photo by Walter Iooss Jr. / Sports Illustrated

Photo by Walter Iooss Jr. / Sports Illustrated

Blue Dunk. Michael Jordan. Lisle, Illinois, 1987.
I was sitting in Finnegan's Wake, one of my favorite bars in San Francisco with my friend Grover last month when my cell phone began making noise. I was getting a text message from Walter Iooss: "Where can I send you my new book for you to review?"

At this point in the evening, I must confess, I had consumed a few too many beers, so my first thought was that Walter had made a mistake and wanted to send an editor his new portfolio. I texted him back some smart ass remark about being drunk, probably accusing him of the same, and closed the phone, laughing.

A few minutes later, it went off again.

"For you wino! I'm sober and going to bed," Walter said.

I finally started to put two and two together and figured out that he was talking about his new book, Sports Illustrated: Athlete (Sports Illustrated Books - available this week). I knew he was coming out with a new book this Spring - he told me about it back in January. He was very excited about it and said it would be the best book he had ever done.

For a guy who has already done about a dozen books, that was quite a statement.

Back at the bar we texted back and forth a few more times as he asked me for my address so he could have a book sent to me. It was getting close to midnight in Florida where Walter lives and he was getting tired.

"Have a shot of Patron on me- that should level out your head," he said.

Later that week a FEDEX arrived with a copy of Athlete. I was very excited to see the new book. Walter had talked so highly of it - and I couldn't wait.

I have every one of Walter's books on my bookshelf. The first (and my favorite) I bought when I was in college, Baseball (published in 1984). I knew all of Walter's greatest hits, and I had seen them all many times. In "Athlete," I was hoping to find some hidden gems and uncovered moments from his archive and I was not disappointed.

The first thing that hit me when I opened up Athlete was how clean the design is and how wonderful all the photographs (there are 150 in the book) looked big and full bleed across the large pages of this 256 page hard cover book. There are no captions. Simply page after page of big-ass pictures with a few first person vignettes written by Iooss about some of his favorite pictures. The other thing I noticed is how beautiful the pictures looked on the printed page. The scans are amazing. Walter's older images from chrome have never looked this good. No blurry scans from bad dupes in this book!

A few days later, my phone is once again buzzing.

"Hi Don Julio. Did you get your book?"

Photo by Walter Iooss Jr. / Sports Illustrated

Photo by Walter Iooss Jr. / Sports Illustrated

Connie Mack Stadium. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1967.
I wrote back, told him that I had it, and set up an interview so we could stop going nuts with text messages, and talk more about the book. Yes, I figured I would write something for, but to be honest, for purely selfish reasons I was dying to hear some good Walter stories. I wanted to know how much work was involved in putting together a book of this magnitude.

"I had a hard time selling the concept of this book," Iooss said. "Sports books don't sell unless they are sport specific. Abrams turned the idea down. I did not want to have a limited run of 2,000 books. I would rather have 60,000 books out there".

Iooss said that he had done a lot of good work since his last collection book (Walter Iooss: A Lifetime Shooting Sports and Beauty, 1999) so the time was right for Athlete.

I mentioned the book's clean and simple design, which really made Iooss's pictures stand out so much. Iooss quickly gave credit to Giovanni Carrieri Russo, the book's designer.

"Giovanni is the only guy I wanted to do the book with. When we brought the book into Sports Illustrated they asked how many pictures were going to be on the cover," Iooss said. "Maybe none said Giovanni. They looked at us like we were from another planet!"

"Giovanni and I spent a lot of time on this book. Every night I was home in Montauk I would go through the spreads with him. I did this for months. We spent a week in his office, three to four hours every day going over all the layouts. We had them on the wall. It was so nice to have a new person like Giovanni looking at my work," Iooss said.

Most people know that Iooss is not just an action shooter. He has done it all throughout his career from shooting every Super Bowl to capturing "The Catch" (Dwight Clark's game-winning touchdown reception from Joe Montana against the Dallas Cowboys) to capturing the personalities of great athletes in portraits and feature pictures like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.

"This is not an action-driven book," Iooss said. "I wanted it to celebrate the heart and soul of sport. You never lose that childhood love of sports- this is why there are so many children in the book. They represent that childhood dream of putting on a uniform."

Iooss got his first Sports Illustrated cover in 1963 when his picture of Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Art Mahaffey was seen by millions of sports fans. Since then he has nailed down over 300 more Sports Illustrated covers, many of them iconic.

One of my favorite pictures in the book is a gorgeous 1967 silhouette of a pitcher warming up at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia with a Ballantine Beer sign lit up on the scoreboard in the background. To me this picture is what Walter was all about during the 1960's.

"My favorite ballpark of all-time was Connie Mack Stadium. It was wonderful," he said. "I liked being there. I was so young no one cared about what I was doing. It was a great period to be a photographer."

Photo by
Iooss has worked in every sporting venue imaginable all over the world during his career.

"It was a sad day in sports when they moved the Super Bowl indoors to the Superdome. Dodger Stadium is an interesting looking place. What makes a great park is the coziness like Wrigley Field. Yankee Stadium is like a detention center. I am all for a new park in New York," he said, making reference to the fact that the Yankees will move into a NEW Yankee Stadium in April of 2009.

"I bet it will be better. I am not going to miss Yankee Stadium. The Bronx hasn't changed- there is always someone yelling at you!"

Walter and I talked about many of the pictures in the new book and I told him about some of my favorites, like Dave Parker and Grant Jackson smoking in the dugout; Joe DiMaggio in the Yankees clubhouse; Johnny Unitas running off the field at Memorial Stadium; Garry Templeton and Tony Scott sitting in the visitor's dugout at Dodger Stadium.

Then he told me about his.

"The kids playing stickball on the street in Cuba is a favorite. They (the kids) are such an important part of the book. We all start out like those kids. Some of us reach the level of stardom. It is that dream that keeps you going- playing ball as a kid. That is what this book is about for me. That picture captures what sport is," he said. "Every eye is on the ball- even the dog! There is no athlete- no matter how good he or she is- who wouldn't want to step in and hit the ball. I would play stickball all day and night when I was kid. I stepped in and hit with the kids in Cuba. I hit a ball so far and lost it. I lost their ball. I was overjoyed- they were not. We had to go buy them a new box of balls."

Ahhh, yes. Walter stories. I love them.

Iooss mentioned a few other pictures that he really liked, including the new Blue Dunk; Michael in bed; the portrait of Ali and Frazier together in 2003.

"Arnie and Jack together at the table in 1965 is also one of my favorites," he said. "Many people have seen a version of "Blue Dunk" before, but the version in "Athlete" is seen for the first time."

Photo by Walter Iooss Jr. / Sports Illustrated

Photo by Walter Iooss Jr. / Sports Illustrated

Johnny Unitas. Baltimore, Maryland, 1970.
Iooss told me that Sports Illustrated Director of Photography Steve Fine found a different frame than what Iooss had originally selected from the 1987 shoot when he photographed Michael Jordan from a cherry picker dunking a basketball against a blue background that was in reality a parking lot that Iooss had painted blue just for the picture. Iooss shot the picture with a Canon F-1 high-speed camera at 14 frames a second on chrome. Iooss said that the new version of "Blue Dunk" is sharper and a better moment than the previous version.

I told Iooss how impressed I was with the printing in the book.

"It is the best printing I have ever had for a book," he said.

He credits the Sports Illustrated imaging department for doing all of the scans. Iooss says that the many trips he took from Florida to New York to work on the book and check on the scans were very important in making sure the book looks as good as it does.

When he saw the first copy of Athlete Iooss was pleased.

"I went to the middle of the book and the gutter was fine. There is nothing wrong with it- just a couple of typos. I don't regret anything I did in this book," he said.

"I love the process. I had a model train set when I was a kid. Once I was done building it after 10 years it was over. I liked the building process. I miss the process now that it is over. The next book will be in 2009," he said.

"I try to make the athletes look like heroes," he said.

In doing so he has become a hero himself to many sports photographers all over the world. With the publication of Athlete there will be a new generation of young photographers seeing Iooss's work for the first time. Many of them will grow up and try to photograph athletes like their hero - Walter Iooss.

Some of them may even get a text message, or two, from him when they least expect it.

Related Links:
Book: 'Athlete' by Walter Iooss
Iooss's personal website

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