A Sports Lens That Captured a Nation

Posted October 16, 2009 at 4:33pm

Nestled between the sports theater and the FBI exhibit on the concourse of D.C.’s Newseum is an exhilarating new photojournalism collection, focusing on the life and work of Sports Illustrated staff photographer Walter Iooss.

With more than 40 photographs and curated by the Newseum in collaboration with the artist himself, “Athlete: The Sports Illustrated Photography of Walter Iooss— is a testament to the competitive spirit and individual drive of Iooss’ athletic subjects — as well as a fitting tribute to the brilliant sports photographer who chronicled their trials and triumphs with his sharp lens.

Though not a household name, Iooss (pronounced “yose—) has had a remarkably successful career with Sports Illustrated. Selling his first photo at age 19, he is the recipient of the 2005 Lucie Award, has published 14 books (including a New York Times best-seller) and has had more Sports Illustrated cover photos than any other photographer.

“He was a teenage photographer. His father put a camera in his hand at a very young age,— said Cathy Trost, Newseum director of exhibit development. “He said it was ‘love at first snap.’—

The exhibition features iconic photos, such as the 2003 sepia-toned reunion photograph of the aged boxing rivals Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier posing grimly. Then there’s a 2004 image of a younger Michael Phelps, taken four years before his infamous Beijing medal run. And, of course, “The Catch— is included — the 1982 Sports Illustrated cover photo of the San Francisco 49ers’ last-minute touchdown pass reception. The photograph became iconic, but Iooss hadn’t even wanted the moment to happen — he had been covering and rooting for the Dallas Cowboys, and San Francisco’s last-minute catch eliminated the team from Super Bowl contention.

Accompanying each one of the photos is a quote or commentary from the photographer, offering a glimpse of personal oral history and background to each picture.

“He’s an incredibly good storyteller, and we wanted no filter,— Trost said. “We thought his words coming through was the most powerful way to tell the story.—

Indeed, in his own words, Iooss talks about the process of taking each photo and the challenges that he faced. Two of his most amusing anecdotes involved photographing tennis players for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, chronicling his difficulties shooting Serena Williams and Steffi Graf. Graf disliked too many aspects of her body, while Williams posed her own problems — she was an atypical swimsuit model and required some creative staging, such as high heels and a wide-angle lens.

The Iooss exhibit is remarkably well-presented. Though small, it incorporates a lively multimedia element — a video featuring the photographer, who brings many anecdotes to life.

“We’ve seen high numbers of people coming in to seen this exhibit,— Trost said, acknowledging that since its recent opening, it has been very popular. “It’s the power of the athletes that shows through the pictures, and I think, it’s the respect that Walter has for the athletes.—

The exhibit runs through the end of the year. More information is available at www.newseum.org.