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|| News Item: Posted 2003-07-31

A Scrapbook of the Sports World: A Profile of Walter Iooss Jr.
By Matt Ginella

Photo by Matt Ginella

Photo by Matt Ginella

Walter Iooss Jr. at Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego.
(Editors note: Matt Ginella wrote the following story about Walter Iooss Jr. for a feature writing class while he was in the process of getting his masters in journalism at Columbia.)

A legend in photography is assigned to take a picture of a legend in professional football. The resulting portrait is poster-worthy. But instead, Walter Iooss Jr. makes an 8x10 print of the image, (an old man seated at his dining room table), and glues it into his leather diary. He dates it March 1, 2001. His entry is painted on the print using a tiny brush and white paint.

The great Johnny Unitas, No. 19, my last boyhood hero, still alive, and had never met or photographed. An unusually emotional day for me, memories flashing back to my late teens- traveling to Baltimore to see and photograph my beloved Colts, Johnny U. and Raymond Berry- and me wanting to take a compelling photograph of a man with the once golden arm, now almost useless, unable to even brush his teeth.

"In the car at the end of the day," Iooss reminisces about the photo shoot, "I felt like a teen age girl looks after meeting a rock star."

Iooss always listens to Beethoven or Mozart, when he's working on his diary. For 43 years, he's been one of Sports Illustrated's most celebrated photographers. His passion now, at 59, is no longer running along the sidelines of a football field lugging 50 pounds of camera. It isn't chasing supermodels to an exotic island in the Bahamas for the swimsuit issue, or begging high-priced athletes to pose for iconic portraits. Iooss's current avocation combines his pictures with headlines cut from newspapers and hand-painted words to form a collage.

He has kept a diary since 1982, but only in the last five years have they become so visually extensive: A portrait of a sleeping Michael Jordan surrounded by countless other images of Jordan, forming an organized border. Tiger Woods encircled by pictures of the great golfers from the past with each picture carefully selected, the diary looks like a jigsaw puzzle and only Iooss knows where the pieces belong. Sometimes diary pages take days or even weeks to finish.

Photo by Walter Iooss Jr.

Photo by Walter Iooss Jr.
After four decades of extensive travel his current schedule allows for days or even weeks to work on a diary entry. Once referred to as "a human Fed Ex package" by his wife, Eva, Iooss is now home more often as he has earned the right to pick his assignments.

Iooss (rhymes with dose) has accounted for almost 300 covers for SI; he is one of five photographers who've covered every Super Bowl. His 1992 book with Michael Jordan, Rare Air, sold 800,000 copies. This year's swimsuit issue marks the 31st consecutive year he's been a part of the worldwide guilty pleasure.

"I say this without hesitation, Walter Iooss is the best that has ever been," says Neil Leifer, who's shot 160 SI covers and is considered, by most experts, the second best in sports photography.

"Today, Walter is better than he was when he started- and when he started, he was damn good," says Leifer. Both prodigies began as freelancers at SI. Leifer when he was 17 and Iooss when he was 16. They both joined the magazine fulltime three years later, making the 19 year-old Iooss the only teenaged staff photographer ever at SI.

On the list of great photographers who've worked for the world's leading sports publication, these two "were doomed to be connected forever through their photographic rivalry," writes Michael McCambridge, in his book The Franchise. "Iooss, leonine and seductive, not averse to sneaking out back for some pot an hour before an event, was the quintessential long-haired, safari jacketed shooter. He earned the envy of his competitors with his nearly miraculous ability to find the right shot." Leifer is no longer an active contributor to the magazine and hasn't been for some time. Iooss on the other hand - is still years from not being productive.

One of two North Eastern homes Iooss owns he refers to as "Heaven." Most people call it Montauk, which is really the eastern tip of Long Island. From the tollbooth of the Mid-Town Tunnel- Iooss's heaven, via car, is three hours, three right turns and a small dirt road away from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan.

Leaning against heaven are three surfboards; four wet suits hang in the guesthouse. There is a Range Rover, a Land Rover and a Mercedes sedan in the garage. Iooss spends most of his free time here watching or surfing the waves off the beach between (Dick) Cavett's Cove and Montauk, a sleepy town in every season except for the summer. "Montauk is a drinking town with a fishing problem," Iooss likes to say.

On this particular afternoon, he sits on the wooden walkway from his neighbor's backyard to the beach. He is wearing red surf trunks, a baseball cap and snap-on sunglasses. He has a five o-clock shadow, a salt and pepper goatee, and a T-shirt that is quick to come off as soon as he is in direct sunlight. Well preserved, he looks more like 49 than 59.

Though disappointed at the low tide and small waves, Iooss seems reasonably content to talk about his neighborhood and his career as opposed to surfing. To the south, his neighbor is four acres away. To the east is Dick Cavett. "He is nuts! The man has lost it. In the middle of the night, he puts on night-vision goggles and walks around in the woods." An ultra wealthy ex-Manhattan mogul lives north of him; to the west are the 3,000 residents of Montauk.

Most great storytellers are also the subjects of great stories. This is true of Iooss.

Dozens of tales about Iooss filter through the halls of Sports Illustrated as well as the world of photography. In the late 1990's, for instance, Iooss almost got off the SI train - a divorce which would have had sent a large ripple across the pond of sports journalism.

"Walter is an asset Sports Illustrated should have never risked losing," says Leifer. But, in 1997, the startup, ESPN The Magazine came calling. John Papaneck, a former SI managing editor and Iooss's friend, as well as John Walsh, the brains behind Sportscenter asked to see Iooss in Manhattan. It wasn't the first time a rival publication had dangled an offer but it was the most serious. After much deliberation, Iooss decided to leave SI; he told Eva and his son Christian he was gone. "'Fuck 'em,' I thought," remembers Iooss. "I love the underdog and it was an opportunity to make some money."

Eva, a former Dutch model, urged him to go into SI's offices in midtown and make the announcement in person instead of over the phone. When Steve Fine, the director of photography heard the news- it was clear SI wasn't just going to roll over and play dead. Fine got up from his desk- closed the door- and informed Iooss he wasn't leaving until he had decided to stay. Fine called managing editor Bill Colson, and three men rode the elevator to the 30th floor to see Editor-in-Chief of Time/Inc. publishing at the time, Norm Pearlstine. In Pearlstine's office, Colson and Fine retreated to a corner and never said a word. It was mano a mano- Iooss vs. Pearlstine.

"In life, there are certain times when you have to deliver a flawless spiel," says Iooss. "This was one of those times, and for five minutes, I did it. I told Norm I didn't feel appreciated and yet I had accounted for more pages than any other photographer had in the magazine's 43-year career." Pearlstine's response? "`Anything you want Walter,'" says Iooss. "That was the day I started making `real money.'"

Sports Illustrated is synonymous with some of the greats who have ever covered the games- both scribes and shutterbugs. Frank DeFord, Dan Jenkins, Mark Kaufman, Hy Peskin and John Zimmerman to name a few. Iooss was there then and is there now with the likes of Rick Reilly, Gary Smith, John Biever and Al Tielemans. For as much as he has seen and done- it is no wonder he is at the center of all that is both good and funny.

Photo by Walter Iooss Jr.

Photo by Walter Iooss Jr.
In the late sixties and seventies, a time in which the magazine was earning its reputation for award winning writing and photography - it was also celebrating its success. It was Jenkins who once called Iooss "an amateur" for leaving a bar at 6:45am. In the early seventies, Iooss, known not only for drinking but for heavy use of marijuana, was photographing half-nude models in places like Fiji, Kauai, the French Riviera and Greece. Assistants and witnesses claim many of the models developed crushes on Iooss. It is widely rumored Cheryl Tiegs may have had more than just a crush. "I will pull a Clinton on this one- decline comment- and let the rumors speak for themselves," says Iooss.

This begs the question, how does the wife of a rakishly handsome photographer respond to questions about being married to the James Bond of his profession?

"I get asked that all the time," says Eva "Everyone must think Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoots are one big orgy. I have always felt secure in what Walter and I have had. If someone is going to have an affair, there isn't much anyone can do to stop them."

What the couple have had, 28 years of marriage, hasn't always been easy. With Iooss so often on the road, Eva jokes about dividing the total years married in half- and now that he is home more often- "I wish he would go away," she says with a wink and a girlish smirk.

Iooss's better half has her own artistic interests. Eva is an avid and successful botanical illustrator, her prints hang throughout their classic country home. The couple raised tow boys and Eva gets credit for being the axis the family spins around- Iooss is more of a best friend to the boys then a typical dad- but does fit the definition of a proud father. He is constantly referring to Christian, 25, and Bjorn, 21. "Christian is like the apple that fell from the tree and sits at the base of the trunk. Bjorn rolled down the hill a little ways, but in a good way," says Iooss. Both are good photographers (he is happy to show off their work) and excellent surfers (better than their "old man"). Christian, like his dad, is a sports fanatic. Bjorn, like his mom, could care less. Iooss was present for both their births and takes pride in the family he's created.

Iooss didn't grow up with the ideal dad. Iooss's parents, who lived in East Orange, New Jersey, divorced when he was four, and he didn't see his father for a year after they parted ways. "Then when I did start seeing him again, it was only on Sundays," he says. "It was traumatic, you know, having him come and go. I would cry every Sunday when he had to leave. Eventually my mom replaced him with a TV. I think that is where I get my love for movies."

Walter Iooss Sr. is gone now but Iooss and his father were eventually able to establish a close relationship over the years. Now Junior, who has never had any formal education in photography, gives Senior all the credit for his endless passion for pictures. "He handed me his camera one day, in the stands of a football game, and let me take some pictures. I just liked the way life looked through a 300 millimeter lens."

So, why is Iooss so great?

Photo by Michael Zagaris

Photo by Michael Zagaris

Walter Iooss Jr. and Matt Ginella at Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego.
"One can't answer that question," says Leifer, struggling to answer the question anyway. "Why is one writer better than another? They all use a similar keyboard. Walter is gifted. We all tried just as hard- we all used the same equipment. It's hand-eye coordination, it's talent and it's passion. Walter is as passionate about photography today as he was 30 years ago."

"Walter is one of the few photographers that has been able to reinvent himself every ten years," says his current boss at SI, Steve Fine. "Whatever he does, he does it to perfection. He is constantly improving."

Iooss seems to think his success is a result of his unconditional love for photography and his ultra competitive spirit. When asked if he had a weakness, there is a long pause followed by another long pause and a humble chuckle. "Now, it is probably my action photography."

The only football game he covered in the 1999 - 2000 season was the Super Bowl. Iooss shot nine rolls of film. He won the 2000 NFL Picture of the Year from that game.

The conversation has moved back into the house and Iooss sits on the porch off his bedroom. An afternoon breeze, smelling of salt water, blows over his shoulder into the meticulously clean room and through the rest of the tidy house. Iooss, who made the switch from bodyboarding to surfing at 54, is still looking over some trees to see if there is a high tide and surfable waves.

Iooss's favorite story from the summer is the day he "owned the point." Surfer speak for a good day in the ocean. "I was in the right spot for all the right waves," says Iooss, as he physically reenacts some of the moves he made. Afterwards, the best surfer in Montauk paddled out to where Iooss was and he did so- not to surf- just to tell Iooss he had arrived.

"Oh man, that made my year- I had arrived," says Iooss, looking like he must have after a day with Johnny Unitas - like a teenage girl looks after meeting a rock star.

Iooss isn't one to sit still for long. From the porch he walks down two flights of stairs to the next venue- his basement, one of three offices in his three-story house.

The basement is where Iooss goes for serious time with his big screen TV or his computer. He logs onto his website and starts scrolling through his portfolio, divided into chapters: Michael Jordan, Portraits, Action, Swimsuit, Travel, Musicians, Diaries.

He clicks on a picture under Travel, pulling up an image: sunset, a floating wooden walkway, three huts whose back doors lead to crystal clear, light blue water. "This is our favorite place to visit. French Polynesia- Vahine Island. Two planes and a boat to get there but when you do, it's worth it. Now THIS is heaven!"

For so much talk about the great gates up above, Iooss, however, is unwilling to talk about what he wants on his tombstone. "Oh man, I have no idea. I don't want to go- I don't want to croak- I have a lot of living to do." It is clear he's not ready to stop surfing, not ready to stop taking pictures. He's not ready to stop filling pages in his diary.

On his way back to Bjorn's room- the room he now uses as a workshop- he notices the answering machine light blinking in his office. He hits the button.

The first message is from a friend who just wants to say "Hi."

The second message is from Michael Jordan's agent. "[BEEEEP]...Walter, this is Este...Unfortunately Michael is going to decline. He says he is real busy but sends his best and he is looking forward to seeing you this season. When I told him you wanted him to pose, he laughed and told me to tell you, `Shouldn't one of the younger guys be on the cover?' Sorry it couldn't work out this time Walter- but I hope all is well with you and if you need anything- don't hesitate to call...[BEEEEP]"

"Damn it!" says Iooss. "I kind of thought he wouldn't do it but it couldn't hurt to ask. Now I will have to shoot Shaq."

Iooss turns on Mozart's 21st Piano Concerto, shuts the door so he won't bother Eva, and he resumes working on his diary. It's October, but he's still working on entries from the summer. The photo he glues on to page labeled August 12 is of a half-naked supermodel in Brazil lying on a giant bed of green and yellow bananas.

Generally excited about another one of his pictures, Iooss provides insight- "I think this one will be one of the all-time greats."

(Matt Ginella is the Picture Editor at Golf Digest and Golf World. Ginella, who previously worked at Sports Illustrated, earned his masters degree in journalism from Columbia in May of 2003.)

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