I had been a pretty decent photographer for a long time, churning out coverages for mags like SI, Nat Geo and LIFE, and just generally living a life through the lens in fairly typical, routine fashion. Phone rings, get on a plane, bring back some pictures. I mean, I got noticed every once in a while, mostly when I messed up. Being a general assignment, problem solver type magazine photog can be a little like being an offensive lineman on a football team. Do your job, nobody notices. Screw things up, and you’re in the highlight reel. I mean, some people cared, every once in a while. For instance, my mom occasionally would ask, “Joseph, what is it again that you do?”
But then, I asked some folks to take their clothes off for some pictures. And not just anybody. I asked some of the world’s most famous athletes to doff their duds. It was 1996, and man, that just flat rattled some folks, and they started asking, “Who is this guy?” So here’s a kernel of advice. If you ever want to get noticed as a photographer, undress the famous.
I ended up on the Today Show, GMA, CNN, getting all sorts of both press and air time, with everybody asking about how it was done, with some winking and nodding to exactly how scandalous, forbidden and naughty it all was.
How fast and far we’ve come in such a short time. Now, it’s almost a rite of passage for the supremely athletic to bare all of their magnificence for the camera. The ESPN Body issue rivals the SI Swimsuit issue in terms of notoriety and anticipation, and, wonder of wonders, it actually photographs athletes, with all sorts of sinew, attitude and body ink. It hews much closer to the zeitgeist than the beach cuties can ever hope to, no matter how much body paint you throw on them, or how floss-like the attire. The ESPN crowd is all raw flesh and power, shot with an edge. Looking at that issue, you’d never know ESPN was owned by Disney.
But in ’96, in anticipation of the Atlanta games, when I went to Dan Okrent, my managing editor, and told him I wanted to shoot these folks nude, I did so with a nervous gulp. Luckily, Okrent was smart, knew the value of a picture, and was a pretty ballsy ME, which was not the case with lots of Time Inc. editors. He looked at me and asked, “You can get these people to take their clothes off?” I said yes. “And you can shoot it in a way I can run it?” Again, yes. “Okay,” he said. And I had one of the biggest assignments of my life. It was an act of faith and daring on his part to be sure. Time Inc. is a pretty conservative, publicly held company, and of course, LIFE was freakin’ Disney in print. We were going to get complaints. We were going to lose subscribers. He still said, “Do it.”
So I went in search of the best of the best. Below is famed long sprinter Michael Johnson, still the only male to win both the 200 and 400 meter races in one Olympiad.
Of course, I complicated matters even further by initially insisting I shoot the thing in 8×10 B&W. Blessedly, my first subject was an amazing athlete who since has become a good friend, a three time Olympic fencer, Sharon Monplaisir. She was so wonderful, and beautiful, she made my job easy, as I struggled on the first outing to find the style of the job, and wrestled with a behemoth camera. She was truly a magnificent subject, and thankfully I’ve worked with her a couple times since that first encounter.
A few years later, I shot her in the studio, and again, she was an amazing physical presence. She joked with me. “Joe, are you ever going to shoot me with clothes on?” We’ve always had a laugh when we have worked, and she remains one of my favorite people. When trying to launch a project like this, your first encounter is critical to the mood and feel of the whole deal, and as I said, she made things easy. Working this job convinced me very quickly that in many instances, I would have to work faster than the 8×10 would allow me, so the rest of the assignment was mostly done with medium format.
They weren’t all easy, to be sure. Jackie Joyner Kersee, a truly historic American athlete, was very dubious. But I had worked with her before, and I simply tried to maintain a calm on the set. I wanted to shoot her from the back, and she eventually agreed. Given her significance, the picture below is now in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.
When Linda Somers crossed the finish line first during the Olympic time trials for the women’s marathon, I whisked her away to an impromptu photo studio I had created in the parking lot, asked her to take her shoes and socks off, and quickly shot a picture of the bottoms of her feet just after running 26.2 miles, all the while chattering away in reassuring fashion about how I wasn’t just some guy from New York with a foot fetish.
This was where I was going with this job. I wanted to see the Olympic body, unadorned with clothing to be sure, but mostly to show how the physique responds to the stresses of achieving athletic excellence, to see what price going farther, faster and higher than anyone extracts from the human body. So, while the above picture is “naked,” it’s certainly not racy, and it is informative. Your feet are in tough shape after running all that way. It takes dedication, and a pretty high threshold of pain.
Below, I shot American fencer Cliff Bayer again in 8×10. (What was I thinking?) Take a look at his right, or fencing arm, and see how much bigger it is than his left.
But then, there are athletes you just want to see, because they are truly, the epitome of human form and excellence. Carl Lewis, seen below, could easily have laid claim to being America’s best athlete, ever.
He showed up at the shoot with his mom, and all of his gold medals, save the one he buried with his father. Carl is an Olympian who became a bit of a lightning rod for some controversy, and took a lot of hits in the press, but I worked with him numerous times and always found him to be a gentleman.
Gail Devers, at that time the world’s fastest woman, had a big personality. Sprinters can be much like their explosive sport. They come at you, hard and fast. Gail was very generous in giving me this picture. She just flexed, and I framed. Shot in ten minutes, available light with a fill board. First place in portraits at the World Press Awards that year. Weird. It was an honor to photograph Gail, by the way. She bounced back from Graves disease, and the possibility that her feet might even have to be amputated, to become the fastest female in the world. Her long nails were her signature.
I shot the arm of Jeff Rouse, Olympic gold medalist in the backstroke, because I was fascinated by the powerful sweep of his arm as it pulled him faster than anyone else in the pool.
And Gwen Torrance, a lovely and amazing sprinter, was so dedicated to her workout routine that she refuse to leave the Emory track stadium at midday. I had to construct an impromptu set of walls with black material so she would have a bit of privacy amidst the lunch crowd at the stadium as she posed for what became one of the covers.
And then of course there was the water polo team. Athletic power to be sure, but also a bit of humor.
I shot super heavyweight lifter Mark Henry, all 435 pounds of him, by putting my strobes behind him and letting a bunch of reflected light wash around his massive frame. Then, I came in close to see a hand that could help lift hundreds of pounds into the air.
And diver Mary Ellen Clark, clenched into a tuck, was trying to make the team as she was struggling to overcome an onslaught of vertigo. She went onto win the bronze medal in 10 meter platform diving.
Amazing bodies, to be sure. But so amazing in other ways as well. The drive to be excellent. The mental toughness. The refusal to quit. That, I think, is why we celebrate these folks every four years. Hats off to all the Olympians as the Games close.
And then of course, there’s the body issue. More tk….
amazing photos, thank you Joe 🙂
Thanks Joe for showing me how much I have to learn!
You are the man!
Bill Laramie says
Wonderful article Joe. Your work and words always inspire.
steve bryson says
I could never imagine what is it to be like the devout religious when they flock to hear their reverend preach…until I read this damn blog! Eloquently written as ever.
charles howse says
I recall that issue! Inspiring at that time and they remain so. Images that are timeless like these are great to see regardless of when they were created.
Martin Kintrup says
Very fine works! Great inspirations for me.
Thanky you for sharing, Joe
Heather Ogg says
Amazing shots as always Joe. What a great subject. Love the runner’s feet and fencer’s arm. Amazing! I remember the water polo shot. It’s fantastic. Love the heavyweight lifter shot. The look on his face shows his mental strength even outweighs his physical strength. Amazing. Thanks for sharing!
very interesting story and amazing pictures
Amazing visualization of sportmen (and women) bodies and their perfection – one great image after another!
Love the lighting of the 7th pic. If you are given the chance, would you shoot Usain Bolt full body naked with only his genital covered with a Nikon DSLR?
Joseph W. Nienstedt says
All of the skill and technique in the world mean nothing without that human connection you have Joe. Thanks for demonstrating it once again!
Mina Refaat says
These photos are truly something, I wish I shoot that good one day 🙂
joe D says
Thanks AS ALWAYS Master Joseph :-)))))))
Question — which I hope you can find a moment to answer –in this post and a previous post which showed the women’s water polo underwater with the flag — HOW IN THE WORLD DO YOU DETERMINE EXPOSURE??? Was there an underwater polaroid back or light meter?
Curiously, and soggily, yours…
joe D says
I meant — in this post showing the backstroker underwater, as well as the prior shot with the women’s WP team…
Your decision to show athleticism without boundaries and choice of large and medium format film was perfect, not only for 1996 (you were way ahead of everyone else), but still relevant for today.
Any chance that you, with Drew’s help, might shoot some film again?
Thanks for making me want to shoot more b/w film,
Chris Rakoczy says
Always a great read and amazing pictures, Joe. You do our profession proud, and do these athletes justice.
Alan MacRae says
Great post, as usual, Joe. As always, amazing images. Thank you for the inspiration! About Irjohn’s post… I think you should do a self portrait, using a D4 for “cover”…
Paul T says
Love these photos. So tastefully done. What a great lesson for all the us padawans. You are the Yoda!
I still have this issue of LIFE in my collection. One of the few things I’ve refused to give up over all these years. Sometimes I keep it open to the shots of Gwen, Gail or Jackie on my treadmill when I’m running. Motivation! Almost brought it with me to Flash Bus so you could sign it. Darn! Why didn’t I? Didn’t want to be presumptious, I guess. One day. ; )
1996, the year my daughter was born, and I worked for Georgia Tech. I was in a job that couldn’t move, and dubbed “essential,” so we got to stay through the whole thing. It amazes me to believe that these beautiful photos–or the idea of them, the idea of “naked”–would have cost Life subscribers then.
I can remember that there were people who had conniptions over that kind of thing; mostly people who weren’t wired and didn’t get out in the big world much. That was only 16 years ago. I wonder what will be different 16 years from now?
Joe McNally says
Hi Joe….There were housings, I believe for light meters, though I may be talking through my hat here. This is embarrassing, but what I would do sometimes would be to put my Sekonic in a ziploc baggie, and go down about two fee with it, pop a value and quickly re-surface. That would give me a starting point, and if I did it quick, I could get away just barely with no damage to my meter. The best way at that point, if I had the time, was to shoot a roll of color neg through the camera, run and process it at a local drug store and make a call based on the neg density, interpolating that exposure for chrome. Joe
William Chinn says
Could you go into detail on how you approach a famous subject to be photographed au naturel? Without giving names, how do you handle being turned down (assuming you were)? Since they are often photographed, but not in this manner, how do you make them comfortable with the process even for a few minutes and do they have approval of the photo?
Joe, thanks for answering that question about exposing for flash in the pool, I was wondering the same.
Just a ziploc — brave (foolhardy???) man!
looking forward to seeing your next editorial story, or ad tearsheets or whatever. have a great day!
Jerome Yeats says
Don’t know how you shot portraits on 10×8″. 5×4″ was my limit.The Carl Lewis image is very good. Actually, you know, it isn’t too difficult to get good athletes to strip as long as they know you are not going to make them look odd or that the images would appear in dubious publications. With women it is a heck of a lot easier than men; women are more extrovert and up for adventure – or they are not!
What many readers here will not appreciate is that it takes so much time to set up and shoot 10×8″ that the last thing one wants to do is to faff around with altering lighting. That’s why the 10×8″ images are even better than they appear but yes, medium format is a lot faster and cheaper 10×8″ for Life was overkill. Good work, Mr McNally
Michel Jacobs says
The topic of this post is not the only topic this post is about. For me. it is about the depth of your caring. The extraordinary photography is merely symptomatic.
Amit Sharma says
Inspiring images. All of those.
Eszter Gulacsi says
Ispirational… as always 🙂
Karen B says
I would second Michel’s sentiment. Your photography speaks for itself – your words speak from your heart each and every time. “you’re a good lad”…
Gary Dumbauld says
Joe, the world is a better place with you in it, yes; but the world is a wonderful place with you and your camera in it. Thanks so much for showing me how to open my eyes, day after day.
Mike Lyons says
Thank You Joe! for the amazing insight to your wonderful photos. I am curious how the idea came to you that you pitched to your editor. I love how you defined the idea in a small frame not, just shoot them naked but, show the hands and feet and the body and its stressors. Thanks again!
These are beautiful images, expressive and dynamic. Thank you much for showing them.
Sydney Photographer says
Some amazing human specimens, beautifully captured!
Those feet. Man. That is a 1000 words right there.
Underwater exposure is much easily in the digital world. Histograms get close and the latitude is forgiving.
But how do you light underwater – not deep, just 2-3 feet in a pool? I know some spend thousands on underwater strobes. I’m looking for a inexpensive speedlite solution. Double bag ziplocks? Floating clear tupperware? Or just an insane amount of light above the water surface?
I’ve read the various blogs crafting light tubes and such, but what say the speedlite guru?
These photos are breathtaking. Thank you for your work, and for sharing it 🙂
Mark Carruthers says
“Dare to be different”…. great work as usual Joe!!!
Jackie Sheen says
Thank you for reminding me, again, just awesome your photography is and just how much I still have to learn. Wonderful work!
I remember the Life series when it came out – how the images illustrated the different body types of various athletes.. in a way that was tasteful, heroic, inspiring and beautiful.
When you proposed a series of the “celebration of the Olympic body” how did you explain your vision to the Olympians? I suspect the photographers approaching subects for the ESPN series may have been carrying copies of your photos from Life to explain where they were going – did you do anything like that in 1996? Were you familiar with the portraits Hubert Julian Stowitts painted for the 1936 games?
Great job Joe!Some athletes will be legends to the Olympics history!Your photos are a piece of art,but we mustn’t forget that super athletes sometimes have a very bad end such as Griffith who went away very young and Carl Lewis who can’t walk anymore…It may sounds hard but it would be very important(and shocking too),shooting him now to see the world how an idol of the world sports trade has come!
Neil Kemp says
Absolutely amazing Joe. You are a magician with light!!
Fantastic – work. Really spectacular. The granularity is incredible, I feel as if I could reach out and touch each person, each body part (and want to!). I’m also thrilled to see a focus on beautiful “people of color,” as we’re so often ignored…unless it’s sports or entertainment related. Despite the irony of that, these are such gorgeous captures it wouldn’t be right *not* to appreciate them for all their quality.
Jose Miguel Parra says
The 20th anniversary of the Atlanta’s Olympic Games is near… what a bout a follow up with the same athletes… It could be very interesting!
Nakedness is an obsesssion with me…..being so comfortable with total being-myself, it helps me to relax.
Also, I am a figure model in various art venues & have beenn for 13 years. I’d love nothing better than to expand my figure posing modelling career to photography. Though I have had only one three hour nude shoots for a professional photographer, I’d love to continue more….
Enjoying myself at naturist parks, and beaches is heaven for me.