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The Interview

Mr Walter Iooss Jr

The world’s finest sports photographer talks through his iconic framed prints – now available on MR PORTER

When you picture some of the greatest athletes of all time in their prime, chances are, Mr Walter Iooss Jr took the image you’re thinking of. Mr Michael Jordan floating impossibly through the air mid-slam dunk? Mr Muhammad Ali reunited with his heavyweight nemesis Mr Joe Frazier? Mr Kelly Slater surfing a door while wearing a suit? They’re all the work of the multi-award winning 72-year-old American who has been called “the poet laureate of sports” and “the foremost sports photographer of his generation”. Mr Iooss first began working for Sports Illustrated magazine in 1961 at the age of 17, landed his first cover at 19 and has since shot more than 300 other Sports Illustrated covers during his 55-year career. “I’ve got the record – no-one has more,” he says matter-of-factly. “I used to have 10, 12 covers a year some years.”

From a young age, Mr Iooss was obsessed with sports – but also with the athletic form. “I loved the way people’s bodies looked,” he says. His parents were divorced and as a boy growing up in a New York suburb he spent Sundays at stadiums and ballparks with his father, a jazz musician and photography enthusiast. “We’d sometimes share the camera,” he says. “As we got a bit more equipment we’d both shoot together.”

  • From top: A portrait of Mr Muhammad Ali, which the boxer has personalised with his handprint, signature and a doodle of a crowd watching a fight; Mr Iooss examines MR PORTER’s list of selected images on the light box in his studio

Mr Iooss, who has a photographic memory with a remarkable recall for dates and details, vividly remembers the moment when, as a 16-year-old, he found his vocation. “It was 1959 and I shot my first roll of film at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx,” he says. “I processed it in my darkroom back home in East Orange [in New Jersey] and as I held the film up to the light it was like an epiphany. My future was unlocked somehow.”

That same year, while still at high school, he called up Sports Illustrated and asked if he could show them his portfolio. A photo editor at the magazine recognised his natural talent and took young Mr Iooss under his wing, giving him “spec assignments” (if the magazine buys the picture, the contributor gets paid). The editor also offered helpful criticism. Three weeks after he graduated from high school, he got his first paid commission from Sports Illustrated.

  • Clockwise from top left: Mr Iooss’s photographic archive lines the walls of his basement; a selection of images from his baseball collection; a shot of Mr Muhammad Ali punishing Mr Ernie Terrell in Houston, 1967

Now in his seventies but still spritely and still working, Mr Iooss is in the rare position for a photographer of owning the majority of his work. He keeps it all in the basement archive of the Iooss family home atop a cliff in Montauk, the easternmost tip of Long Island, where he lives with his artist wife, Eva. He invited Mr Russell Blackmore, owner of Sonic Editions, to look through his life’s work in order to put together a collection of framed prints for MR PORTER.

One half of the basement is a gallery. Every inch of wall space is crammed with works from some of the best photographers of the 20th century – Mr Harry Benson’s Beatles in Paris; Mr Danny Clinch’s Springsteen; Ms Annie Leibovitz’s famous portrait of Messrs Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi; the jazz photography of Mr Herman Leonard. “It was like speaking to my dad when I spoke to Leonard,” says Mr Iooss. “He had the language of a musician.” Several of the prints feature a personalised dedication to their friend Mr Iooss.

  • From top: Sizing up Mr Julius Erving, aka “Dr J” – the godfather of the “slam dunk”; a mark-up of Mr Iooss’s iconic shot of rival golfers Messrs Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus 

In the adjacent room is Mr Iooss’ den, which is heaving with his own, instantly familiar photography.

“I’ve been to a lot of archives but this – five decades of work of a single photographer who guides you through it with a pin-sharp recollection of each shot and anecdotes behind the images – is without a doubt, the most enjoyable and rewarding experience to date,” says Mr Blackmore. “Hearing Walter explain how he planned the shots, how he persuaded the subjects to go along with his set-ups, when you’re dealing with true icons like Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, finding out what some of the most famous sportsmen and women were actually like when the camera wasn’t rolling, was amazing.”

Having developed his interest in photography from his father, Mr Iooss has in turn passed on that same passion to his sons. Christian, 39, employs his dad at Golf Digest magazine where he is director of photography and video, and Bjorn, 35, is a successful fashion photographer – he took the images that accompany this story.

Mr Iooss has the excited demeanour of a man who’s made his passion into his profession and seemingly enjoyed every minute of it. Here, he gives the background to the nine of the prints Mr Blackmore chose for the MR PORTER collection.

MR PORTER X SONIC EDITIONS

Mr Michael Jordan: Rare Air

“This ended up being the cover of a book I did with Michael called Rare Air. I stayed at the Ritz-Carlton when I was in Chicago working on the book and they had a hooded terry cloth bathrobe in each room. One day I saw this beautiful shot on the front of National Geographic of an Ethiopian guy in a hooded robe. I took the bathrobe with me to Miami, showed Michael the picture and said ‘I want to try this’. So we go up to the rooftop of his hotel in Miami and shot for maybe five minutes and that was the cover. Someone once asked Michael to write a book blurb for me. He wrote back: ‘He’s quick and he’s good.’ That’s the ultimate compliment.”

Mr Muhammad Ali: The Weigh-in

“I only ever did two Ali fights. This was a heavyweight title unification fight on 6 February, 1967 at the Houston Astrodome. They had the weigh-in the day before. In his pre-match poem, Ali talked of knocking his opponent Ernie Terrell out of the stadium in the first round: ‘The ref is frantic/ Terrell’s over the Atlantic/ Who would’ve thought, when they came to the fight/ They’d see the launch of a coloured satellite!’ I was just there to photograph Ali. To me Terrell didn’t even exist in this fight. I don’t even think I was really that good a boxing photographer. But when you’re shooting Ali, he has this mystique.”

Mr Muhammad Ali: “What’s My Name?”

“There were 37,000 spectators there – the biggest indoor boxing crowd ever at the time. And they saw Ali humiliate his opponent.  The fight happened during that transition when he changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. But Terrell refused to acknowledge his new name, kept calling him by his ‘slave name’ during the build-up. It infuriated Ali. And so during the fight, he brutally punished Terrell. Kept beating him and taunting him, saying: ‘What’s my name? What’s my name?’ That was his famous refrain during the fight.”

Mr Muhammad Ali: The Corner

“Terrell suffered a terrible beating. In the third round, Terrell took a blow to the left eye which left him with double vision. He broke a bone under that eye that required surgery afterwards – he was almost blinded. But the fight lasted 12 more rounds. It went the full distance when it should have been stopped. By the eighth round, Terrell was virtually helpless. Both his eyes were swollen shut. This is a shot of him getting attention from the doctor while in the opposite corner Ali stands in wait to go at him again.”

Mr Julius Erving: Dr J

“Dr J was one of these biblical figures in sport. Michael Jordan learned a lot from Julius Erving. He was a great player, one of the game’s best dunkers. Sports Illustrated named him one of the 40 most important athletes of all time. I’d worked with him before and came up with the idea for this posed shot. Back then when they made the team announcements in Milwaukee, they used to put this spotlight on each player. So one day after practice, I got them to put the spotlight on and I went up to the rafters and took this shadow shot.”

Mr Björn Borg: The Serve

“This was the US Open in 1978. Borg is one of my favourite athletes. The way he played, dressed, walked – everything about him was cool. I called my first son Christian Bjorn Iooss after him. I was going to name him Bjorn but my father said, ‘He’s going to hate you – having to spell out both names all the time to everyone.’ So I made it the middle name. Then when we had a second son, we figured we’d call him Bjorn and drop Christian’s middle name. The greatest day of my athletic life was playing doubles with Borg against the No.1 and 2 players in Antigua. I hit four winners in the first game and then I don’t remember anything but we beat them 6-2, 6-2, 7-5. Borg left a note for me the next day: ‘Dear Walter, thanks for carrying me in the match. Your friend, Björn.’ The greatest note I’ve ever gotten.”

Mr Walt Frazier: Clyde

“Clyde was a rock star at the time: the hats, fur coats, Rolls-Royces, the round bed with the mirrors. He was the original NBA fashion icon. He got his nickname when he started wearing those wide-brimmed hats similar to the ones Warren Beatty wore in Bonnie and Clyde. We’d done a book together – Rockin’ Steady – during his peak at the New York Knicks, so we knew each other well. This was taken in June 1973 at the Knicks team hotel in Long Beach, California, the day of the game, just sitting by the pool. Look at his nails! He was always so fastidious: his sideburns, his nails, everything.”

Hanalei Bay

“I had this helicopter pilot in Hawaii called Red Johnson who had this great sense of photography. We would wait for the sets of waves and when a guy dropped in we’d go lower and lower and we might be 20, 30 feet away from them. We’d follow them, sometimes blow them right off the wave. One time we had a wave go right through the chopper – through both doors. I got my feet wet! People are experimenting with drones now but the best spot isn’t necessarily 500 feet up, it could be 15 feet. That’s what we were able to do back then because there were no restrictions. You couldn’t do that now.”