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|| News Item: Posted 2001-01-23

Picture This: portraits of athletes
By Robert Seale, The Sporting News

Photo by Robert Seale/The Sporting News

Photo by Robert Seale/The Sporting News
One of things I enjoy most about my job at The Sporting News is shooting portraits. I would say that probably 40% of my time is spent arranging and shooting portraits. Sometimes the athletes are great; they understand that a positive, interesting portrait is a good thing, helps with their name recognition, gets them more press, gets them more devoted fans, makes them more popular, and of course, makes them worth more money.

However, as anyone who has dealt with these guys knows, most of the time they simply don't care. The PR guy is uninterested and short with you because he wants to be the player's buddy, and you are limited to a five minute shoot in an uninteresting locker room with the player wearing only a jersey.

Like anything else, there are good guys and bad guys to deal with. Barry Bonds stood me up for three days and turned down all of our ideas before he finally showed up, (late), on the fourth day to let us shoot him during batting practice; and this was for a cover shot naming him "Player of the Decade." Mark Messier once gave me five frames before walking off. By contrast, Cal Ripken is a total professional. If he agrees to a 30-minute shoot, he makes sure you get what you need, even if it takes 40 or 50 minutes.

Here are a few stories that run the gamut, followed by a few tips that I try to remember.

Roger Clemens was totally into the concept of our shoot for an issue we were doing on "Throwback Players". We named 9 players to an all-throwback team and proceeded to dress up the players in old-school baseball uniforms. Tracking down authentic uniforms, gloves, shoes, etc. proved to be very difficult. Clemens was in the middle of an off-season trade, and didn't know where he would end up, so we did his shoot in the Philadelphia Athletics uniform that he wore in the movie "Cobb." Clemens was totally into it. We had to shoot him while he was attending the Bob Hope Golf tournament in Palm Springs.

Photo by Robert Seale/The Sporting News

Photo by Robert Seale/The Sporting News
After arriving at his hotel, I was told to call his agent back in Houston, he would then call Clemens in his room, and Clemens would call the lobby for me. The reason for this ridiculous phone tag was because Clemens was checked in under an assumed name, and didn't want to give it away, because he uses the same name throughout the seasonlike I care! Anyway, dude didn't want to walk through the lobby looking like Christy Mathewson, so I had to bribe a bellman to take me to his room and whisk him out through the kitchen(I am not making this up!). We then had the bellman drive us in a golf cart to a deserted dirt parking lot way back behind the hotel. (I was already set up there), Clemens told him to come back for us in an hour or so, and we proceeded to shoot photos, with Palm Springs mountains in the background, of Clemens pitching at me. He was very concerned with making the old-school poses look authentic, and he even showed me how to properly scuff the new baseballs I had brought to the shoot, so they would look old and worn in. It was a real collaboration, and at the end I thanked him for his time and gave him a box of Titleists for the tournament. Even millionaires appreciate a box of Titleists.

A shoot that didn't go as well was Pudge Rodriguez. We followed Pudge all the way to Puerto Rico during the off-season. We set up 3 or 4 great location shoots with him, his "valet" and an interpreter over the course of 3 days only to have him blow us off, stand us up and generally be irresponsible until the last day we were there, when he finally agreed to be shot at a public track where he was working out at 10 o'clock at night! We had a shot arranged in the surf on the coast after his scuba lessons; a series with his family at his home; and the center spread from hell - Pudge standing regally at sunset in front of El Moro, an old Spanish fortress with white stucco towers facing the ocean in old San Juan. Our interpreter, (frustrated like I was after 3 days of missed appointments) as I set up in front of the bathrooms at the track in total darkness had the quote of the trip"What can you say, Pudge he got milkshake for brains " After three days of driving around with this guide/ interpreter we later learned that one of Pudge's shadier friends from high school had supposedly put a hit (yes, a mob contract) out on our interpreter. Ouch!

Photo by Robert Seale/The Sporting News

Photo by Robert Seale/The Sporting News
While shooting Eric Davis at his home in LA, I was subjected to his lovelorn Shar-Pei. Eric left me outside to set up on his outdoor basketball court. I told him it would take 30 minutes or so for me to set up and to just go inside and relax for a while. He went inside, I reached down to start unpacking my cases, when from around the corner, Eric's Shar-Pei spots me and starts trotting towards me. The first thought was, "Oh shit, this dog probably bites." So, I ignore the dog and continue dealing with my gear, I'm trying not to make eye contact, when suddenly, I look down. and his dog is humping my leg! I kick the dog off, try to pet him on the head and send him on his way, but he will not leave me alone. Each time I get him off my leg, he's back within 10 seconds, pretending my leg is a Shar-Pei blow up doll. It took 30 long minutes for Eric to come back out and finally chain up his damn sex starved mutt.

Two years ago, I had to set up a shoot with Spike Lee for a cover we did on New York being the best sports city in the country. We figured Spike in his Knicks jersey and Yankees cap would be a good shot. I sent him a fax and got a call back, NOT from a PR flack, but from him personally! He liked the idea, wanted to be a part of it, discussed good locations with me to get the best skyline view, and then said, "Well, you probably want to do this late in the evening when you can get the good light" Well, uh, yes, I do! We're so used to shooting athletes at high noon under horrible light, that I didn't know how to act when faced with the prospect of shooting someone at the proper time of day. He gave me his cell phone number, insisted that I only send a regular car for him (I had offered a limo), and proceeded to show up on time, totally alone with props in hand. No handlers, no entourage, just Spike and his Knicks jersey. How refreshing! We shot pictures for 45 minutes or so, and I couldn't resist, while trying to coax a laugh out of him, reciting my favorite line from "Do the Right Thing." (This is the scene where the guy in the Bird jersey runs over Mookie's friend's brand new Air Jordans and scuffs them with his bike tire) "Yo, Spike your Jordans are FUCKED up!" Spike didn't miss a beat, replying with the next line "Them shits is broke."

Photo by Robert Seale/The Sporting News

Photo by Robert Seale/The Sporting News
I've shot Keyshawn Johnson a couple of times, and during our most recent shoot, the reporter was there talking to him during the shoot, getting a few extra quotes for his story. I was struck by how media-savvy Keyshawn is. He kept talking about the New York media, pointing out that some of the writers had tried to "Fuck him", and he had subsequently "fucked them" by giving competing writers quotes, even calling them up on his own sometimes. After listening to all his 'media' talk I blurted out, how cool it would be to dress Keyshawn up like a 1920's newspaper reporter.he liked the idea, and said , "come back Monday and I'll do it. " (This was on a Friday) I had to shoot two football games that weekend, and I had no luck finding any prop shops or stylists in Tampa. After a nervous weekend full of phone calls, I managed to find an old typewriter, a vintage suit, a fedora with press card, antique lamps, reporter's notebooks, ash trays, stacks of newspapers, and cigars for him to chomp on..all on Monday morning in time for a 4 o clock shoot. Keyshawn laughed and cut-up through the whole thing, typing profane "stories" on the type writer about his teammates, former teammates and his beloved media. He had a ball with it.

Here are some tips I've picked up, that you might find valuablethey are suitable for framing or wrapping fish.

Make checklists for your cases. I can't tell you how many times I've shown up somewhere without the exact item that I needed. The worst case was shooting Joe Sakic somewhere between Vancouver and Seattle in a little seaside town, only to find that I did not have a sync cord anywhere in my cases. Fortunately, Sakic was very kind, loaned me his yellow pages, and I found a wedding photographer nearby who loaned me a cord pretty embarrassing.

"Saw the hotshoe off your camera." This is the best advice I ever got, from a photographer named Jeffrey Salter at the Miami Herald. He looked at my portfolio, and (after he finished laughing), told me this line and told me that portraits are almost always more interesting if the light is coming from any angle rather than head on.

"Cover your ass." We have all heard this a lot, but Eric Schlegel of the Dallas Morning News said this was his one piece of advice after he did a series of great portraits for the DMN's annual football section several years ago. He talked about having your act together because all of his portraits for this section were shot in 5 minutes or so.

"Just be nice to people" This is a line I heard from portrait great Gregory Heisler when asked about his technique with his subjects. I've seen him work (on videotape) a couple of times, and he has a very light, gentle touch with people. He doesn't come into situations saying "don't you know who I'm with?" or any kind of attitude like that. In my experience, people respond much better to being handled gently with humility and respect.

Be flexible. Your preconceived idea/location/pose for a shoot maybe great, but it helps to be open to new ideas. You might get to a location and find a great window or a great architectural detail, or a great colored wall or sky that you can build a great photograph out of. Don't be afraid to chuck your original idea and go with something that your environment provides.

Always have options. When I do a shoot, I try to set up in an area where I can shoot 2 or 3 set-ups in the same general area. For example: I might set up in a room at a practice facility; shoot one or two rolls, walk 5 steps outside a nearby door to shoot another set-up outside (with lights already set up and ready in both places); then turn the lights around and shoot another set-up using the sky for a backdrop. This way, in less than 10-15 minutes you can give your editor 3 different shots to look at, and you've made it easy for the athlete as well.

Be honest with the people you are photographing. I usually talk to the subject before the shoot, explain what the photo will look like, and explain what we are trying to do, and tell them approximately how long it will take. In our business, you WILL run into the same athletes again and again, and if you are one of those "just one more roll" guys the athlete is going to remember you for all the wrong reasons, and you'll have a harder time the next time you shoot him. There are special situations, when a God-beam breaks out of the clouds and you have to shoot as long as you can, but by and large, try to stick to whatever time frame you agreed upon in the beginning.

Always specify uniform selection. It doesn't matter that you spent a month setting up the shoot, spent 1500.00 on a plane ticket, paid an assistant to scout locations for two days, and arranged the perfect time of day for the shoot; you MUST tell the PR guy that you want the player in home jersey, shorts, socks, game shoes, headband, sweat bands, etc. Never assume that the PR dude will actually have the mental capacity to provide said uniform, thus promoting his employer's franchise name. As children, these sports PR people were champions in "Simon Says." You didn't say 'Simon Says' bring the baseball cleats, so now you have to shoot this player in sandals." If you don't specify - it will not happen.

(Robert Seale is on staff at The Sporting News, based in Houston. The TSN is the USA's oldest all sports publication. He can be e-mailed at:

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