In anticipation of the Super Bowl LVIII played this Sunday, February 11 in Las Vegas, Nevada, Skylum had the privilege of sitting down with none other than legendary American sports photographer, Walter Iooss. Renowned for his unparalleled eye for capturing the essence of sports moments, Iooss's work has graced the covers of esteemed publications and immortalized the greatest athletes of our time. In this exclusive interview, Iooss shares unique stories behind his iconic images and offers invaluable insights into the world of sports photography.
Skylum: Can you describe how the Super Bowl and its audience have evolved over the years since you began covering the event?
I attended 54 consecutive Super Bowls, skipping only the one during the pandemic in 2022 when I was in Miami and the game was in Tampa. The rest I have watched from home. Initially, the first two championship games, which preceded the “official Super Bowl era”, were held in less-than-ideal locations like Cleveland, Green Bay, Buffalo. In 1967, they moved the game to Los Angeles, which was literally a game-changer. I distinctly remember the first Super Bowl, held in a stadium with a capacity for 100,000 spectators, yet only 40,000 showed up. I think it was the Green Bay Packers against the Kansas City Chiefs. As the years progressed, the Super Bowl gained momentum. The pivotal moment came in 1969 when the New York Jets triumphed over the Baltimore Colts, establishing the Super Bowl as a premier event in the National Football League. That’s when it really took off.
As far as the audience, it has transformed over time. It has become much more of a corporate thing. Unlike regular football games, which are typically shorter in duration, the Super Bowl extends to about 5 hours due to commercials and halftime shows. Personally, I've found the experience at the stadium way more boring compared to watching at home, where everyone enjoys their snacks and cocktails, and eagerly anticipates the famous commercials while you just sit there and wait. I used to sit in the stands the last, like, 3 or 4 years after I got off the field. But being among a drunk crowd became less appealing in my later years.
The 50th Super Bowl was pretty special, though. The National Football League (NFL) sent my son and me to celebrate the milestone where we joined fans at this memorable party in San Francisco. That was very special.
Skylum: Does photography run in your family?
Yes, our youngest son, Bjorn, is a talented photographer. Our oldest son, Christian, accompanied me to the Super Bowl. He initially served as a picture editor at Golf Digest and has since transitioned to the role of video director at the same magazine here in the States. So, they're all deeply connected to photography. It's been more of a passion and fun than a job for us.
Skylum: You took this iconic image of Dwight Clark “The Catch”, featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1982. What made this image so special, and is it indeed one of your favorite pictures from your career?
And I had taken pictures like this before, but never like this, in a moment that I didn't know existed till it happened. At the end of the game, with something like seven seconds remaining, the legendary quarterback Joe Montana rolled right and threw the ball to Dwight Clark, the only person on Earth capable of catching, as Montana later said himself. Positioned in the end zone, I instinctively picked up my camera, it was a normal lens pre-focused to around 14 feet. As I glanced out of the corner of my eye, I witnessed the play unfold before me. The Dallas Cowboys had just been defeated, and in that split second, I captured the perfect moment. In the days before digital photography, the film was developed and sent to either New York or Chicago, I don’t recall now. By Wednesday or Thursday, when the magazine hit the stands, the editors had cropped the image into a vertical format, immortalizing "The Catch." I mean, it's just the perfect moment. I've always admired Dwight Clark, although we've never met in person. We exchanged prints, and I treasure a signed print of "The Catch" that I received from him.
Skylum: Can you describe what it felt like to be with the losing team?
Going into the locker room felt like stepping into the most depressing scene imaginable. It was as if every person in that room had just received news of a tragic loss. Everyone’s disheartened, half-naked, and slumped over. The mood was akin to a morgue, with nothing to be said. The weight of defeat made the air feel heavy. If you play ball, you want to win. That's the only thing that matters. The essence of sport is to win. No one goes out there to lose. I recall a conversation I had with a friend while playing tennis. I mentioned that a match was enjoyable, even in defeat, to which he responded, "Walter, it's not fun if you don't win." That sentiment resonates deeply—the essence of sports is to win. It can be fun, but if you play ball games, you want to win.
Skylum: What challenges have you faced working with famous athletes? Can you tell us a story that you’ve never shared publicly before?
In terms of working with world-famous, I’d say Joe Montana, the quarterback who threw "The Catch," and Dwight Clark, the receiver who made the iconic play. We collaborated on a book project, and I must say, I just love this guy. He was remarkably down-to-earth despite his fame and an exceptional, beautiful athlete. One particular memory that comes to mind is when we were in a tropical paradise for a bikini photo shoot. My assistant and I were playing basketball on the court when Joe Montana casually walked by. He said, give me the ball. He takes what they call a baseline jumper from the side. Never felt the ball, never been on that court. One shot, swish.
It was a moment of sheer skill that left us in awe. My friend and I just looked at each other and said, “player, this guy is a player”.
Over lunch one day, I had the opportunity to chat with Joe and his wife. I noticed his wife rubbing his elbow, which had suffered a terrible injury towards the end of his career. When I asked about it, Joe goes: "You know, Walter, I'd give anything for a Sunday again." He said, no practice, no media, just the game. This is the problem with being a great athlete. Your career is usually over by like thirty-five. And you can never have that joy of that moment again. I'll never forget that.
Skylum: What did you draw inspiration from when you were first starting out?
I began my journey at a very young age, landing my first paid assignment from Sports Illustrated just two weeks after graduating from high school. When I was 17, I was already an avid reader of Sports Illustrated, admiring the work of their photographers and those from Life magazine. All my heroes were based out of the Time-Life building in Manhattan, which was the epicenter of journalism excellence. Seeing all the renowned photographers and writers there was truly inspiring. I mean, it was just one of these places that you're lucky enough to work for.
But stepping into the world of professional photography as a young kid had its challenges. Many older colleagues didn't readily accept me. Still, I consider myself fortunate to have had a start like that.
Skylum: Would you pick this career all over again, if given the chance?
If I were starting out now, I wouldn't suggest it as a career. The publishing industry has been decimated, and opportunities for sports photographers have become increasingly limited. While there are still some places to work, of course, there are wire services and other companies, the number of available positions is scarce, especially in newspaper roles. So, while I've had a fulfilling career, the landscape has changed considerably, making it a more challenging path for aspiring sports photographers today.
You've undoubtedly inspired countless young photographers with your work.
Yes, I've heard so over the years, and it's truly heartwarming to know that my work has inspired others to pursue photography. I'll share a little anecdote: My grandson, who is 15 and attends a school in Manhattan, had to take a photography class for the school album. Every year, the school arranges a class photo where each student holds up their name tag at their belly. During one of these sessions, when my grandson, Parker, held up his name tag, the photographer asked, "Are you by any chance related to Walter Iooss?" Parker proudly responded, "Yes, he's my grandfather!." I love that.
Skylum: In your work, you speak of two types of images, Conceptual Image vs the Decisive Moment. Do you prefer either one of these? How did you balance between these two throughout your career?
I think that a lot of my style, if you really look at it, is being obsessed by one thing – backgrounds. Photographer once said, “I never met a wall I didn't like, because if you have a cluttered background, your eye doesn't go to the subject”. Even during my early days as a news photographer, I prioritized finding the best background, I would just sit in one spot and hope something would happen through that background. So you're always gambling. I mean, it was easy to take a good picture, but the thing you want to do is take a great picture. So you always have to gamble a little.
Over time, think I got tired of just shooting games and action and began focusing on the broader context of sports: what’s going on around you? The bench, the walls, the fans. So I've concentrated on every aspect of sport. While iconic moments like "The Catch" are undeniable highlights, my photography has evolved with each assignment, whether it's working with larger-than-life athletes or tackling cover assignments. You have to evolve. Evolution is inevitable in this field, driven by a combination of changing assignments and personal growth as a photographer.
Skylum: Your conceptual images are rather original and captivate with things like color, unique angle etc. Do you believe in following the rules such as those of composition, or do you prefer to trust your intuition and let it guide you?
All those things are always at the forefront of my mind. Understanding how the eye naturally moves across an image, from the lower left to the right, is crucial. The eye naturally moves in a certain direction. I think the hardest format to work in, compositionally-wise, is a square. While some photographers excel at composing within a square format, such as with the Hasselblad, I personally prefer the horizontal aspect ratio of 35mm or the 6x7 format. Mary Ellen Mark was a great photographer who did that.
Light is another critical factor in photography. Poorly lit picture – out. I've worked extensively with color, too, particularly with Fujifilm's rich color rendition when it came out in the early 80s. I grew up on Kodachrome. It was ASA 10. Now, digital camera, you go, you know, 1000 ASA, you don't even know it. But that film is so rich, you know, and you know what you're using because you use it all the time. And then digital came in and then it was like a whole other world. I love digital, you see what you do, but sometimes it's distracting. I think, when you're shooting, have a screen and art directors and everyone's looking at the screen all the time. There was something good about a roll of film because it had a speed to it. You shoot 12, 16, 24 shots, whatever. Get another back on. It was like a rhythm. Digital, which is nice because you can see, but everyone's all like over your shoulder all the time. Now I don’t shoot with film. Still. On. Sometimes? And my son, he likes to shoot film once in a while. Then you gotta scan it, you end up with a digital format anyways. I shot with a polaroid this summer, which I hadn't done in like 10 years. The film was still good even thought it expired 10 years ago. That was fun. Have a very short focus range and have a kid in the picture. The picture is beautiful.
Skylum: What are your thoughts on the discussion of analog versus digital photography?
Use whatever suits your creative vision. While there's some romanticized notion surrounding film photography today, especially on platforms like Instagram, the medium itself doesn't inherently guarantee the picture’s quality.
The transition from film to digital photography was a whole new world. Digital offers immediate feedback, but there's something nostalgic about the rhythm of shooting with film. There was something good about a roll of film because it had a speed to it. You shoot 12, 16, 24 shots, whatever. Get another back on. It was like a rhythm. Digital is nice because you get immediate feedback, but back in the studio everyone's over your shoulder all the time. Now I don’t shoot with film. My son likes to shoot film once in a while. Then you gotta scan it, you end up with a digital format anyway. I shot with a Polaroid this summer, which I hadn't done in like 10 years. The film was still good although it long expired. That was fun. Have a very short focus range and have a kid in the picture. The picture is beautiful.
So I say, whether film or digital, the essence of a photograph lies in its composition, lighting, and storytelling. A great picture is a great picture regardless. Pick whichever and focus on telling a good story.
Skylum: How do you know if the image is good/great? What makes an image great?
A great image is one where everything falls into place, guiding the viewer's eye right to the subject. The Super Bowl wasn't the best example of that; it was strictly a news event. Other forms of photography, like cover assignments or for example when you do essays on a certain sport, a certain athlete, they offer more creative freedom. That's when you can utilize all your skills. I spent a lot of time with Michael Jordan on book projects, and all his advertising shoots in the 90s. Michael appreciated my efficiency, he liked me because as he said, “he's quick and he's good”. Which is what you need to be when you're dealing with great athletes. You often get 10 min. But what would I do if I had 10 minutes? I’d finish in 9. I can do whatever you want in less time. Athletes like Tiger Woods appreciate the efficiency and professionalism, they want a good picture, but they don't want their time wasted.
Skylum: What’s the craziest thing you ever had to do to get the shot?
One of the most memorable and perhaps craziest experiences was probably I was working on a project for Camel Cigarettes in the late eighties. The assignment involved photographing the Camelman in various tropical locations like the Philippines, Malaysia, and Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands. During one shoot on the North Shore of Kauai, the art director wanted an aerial shot of the Camelman from a helicopter, with the other pilot hidden from view. So the only way to do this was to be strapped on the pontoon of the helicopter. I mean, I love helicopters, but I said to everybody, “This could be our last shot..” The art director's response was simply, "Get the camel man." And we did it. Working on these Camel shoots was often tough. The environments were harsh, everyone got sick in these places, dysentery, bug bites, there were even pirates in the water so we had to carry guns. It wasn't all fun and games; many of these trips were tough. And then you go back to the Manila Hotel on the weekend, and it was like going to heaven for two days. And then you go back to the jungle. I admire those photographers who put themselves out there; the National Geographic guys, their work is pretty special. Steve McCurry is one hell of a photographer too.
Skylum: Have you ever wished you pursued a different type of photography or regretted not taking certain pictures?
No, I've done a lot of variety in photography, obviously sport and beauty being the biggest part of it, but I've done a lot of landscapes, too. If there's something beautiful, I'll shoot it. The only thing I wish I would have done maybe is become a musician. My father was a jazz musician in Manhattan. I love music and I love the way musicians speak. I can't live without music. I listen mostly to old R&B, Classic soul, influenced by the vibrant music scene of my hometown, where I was exposed to incredible singers, predominantly black and Italian. I grew up during the doo-wop era, and I have a special love for music from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. When I get in the car, the first thing I do is tune into my five favorite stations—it's the best way to start the day.
Skylum: Can you pinpoint a pivotal moment (or moments) that influenced the trajectory of your career?
I think the monumental change was the contract I secured with Fujifilm. I got a call from my old agent and he said, someone from Fujifilm reached out. I said, Fujifilm? What is it? I agreed to the meeting at a renowned public relations office in New York City called Edelman. During the meeting, Fujifilm presented a project: documenting American athletes as they trained and competed in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. The offer was accompanied by a substantial sum of money, unlike anything I had ever earned before, with no expense spared. Naturally, I wanted to ensure the quality of the film matched the magnitude of the project. So I tested the film out at a poorly lit football stadium in Dallas, one of the worst-lit stadiums in America, comparing Fujifilm to Kodak's high-speed Ektachrome. And we got back to the lab and compared the images under the loop. And you couldn't compare them, It blew Kodak right out of the water. I said, all right, I'll do this project.
So I had carte blanche and full creative freedom. I could go back and forth to California, do anything I wanted. Fujifilm even produced a book and organized exhibitions across the country to showcase the project. By the end of the Olympics in the Los Angeles Coliseum, the track and field was all covered with green boxes. We have won. Fujifilm's strategic presence at the Olympics, coupled with their acquisition of a portion of the advertising pie, that basically sort of destroyed Kodak. This was from 1982 to 84.
Skylum: Have you worked with other camera brands besides Fujifilm?
Yes, I've had the opportunity to work closely with Canon as well. I made the switch from Nikon to Canon around the late 1970s or early 1980s. Canon's cameras and lenses were exceptional, and they even produced commercials showcasing their quality. Both Nikon and Canon made great cameras and shaped the landscape of photography during that period.
Skylum: In sports photography, what's your preferred setup?
My go-to setup is simple, two or three cameras equipped with various lenses. I typically carry a 600mm or 400mm lens for capturing distant action, an 80-200mm zoom lens for versatility, and sometimes a wide-angle zoom like a 24-105mm for capturing broader scenes. That sort of covers it.
Skylum: Can you tell us about your first camera and how it influenced your passion for photography?
My first camera was actually my father's camera, an Asahi Pentax. I still have it. My father, besides being a talented musician, had a love for photography, and he passed that passion down to me. We would often go to sports events together, whether it was a baseball game at Yankee Stadium, a basketball game at Madison Square Garden, or any other local sports event. We would take turns using the camera. And then I started to fall in love with photography.
The very first assignment I told you about came just two weeks after graduating from high school, for none other than Sports Illustrated. It was in 1961 for a segment called "Pat on the Back," which highlighted ordinary citizens who had done something extraordinary. This particular assignment took me to Connecticut to photograph an 84-year-old sailor named Archie Chester. So my father drove me up, and he's Walter Iooss Sr. So this guy, he sees us, and he's looking at my father, like, who's this kid? He thought my father was doing the shoot. I was a boy doing a man's job. I'll never forget my father’s face. He was proud of me. The shoot went smoothly, and Archie's photo made it into the magazine. I was paid $100 for the day, which was a substantial amount at the time.
From there, I began covering football games, capturing the action while getting paid for it. You know, in Yankee Stadium, I'd go to a game, to be on the sidelines. When you're a kid, all you did was watch sports on TV. My friends were like “Oh, you're on the sideline of the game and you're getting paid?” I said, “Yeah, man, a hundred bucks!” They go “You gotta be kidding!”.
Skylum: Was there a specific moment when you realized that photography would be your lifelong career, or did you ever consider pursuing a different path?
Absolutely, there was a moment. It was in 1959 the day my father and I went to see New York Football Giants games at Yankee Stadium. He had season tickets, and he had purchased a Pentax camera along with a 300mm lens. I managed to capture just four frames. After processing the film, I held it up to the light, and in that moment, as my managing editor once said, my future was unlocked. It was as if the path was already laid out for me. By the time I graduated from high school, it was evident to everyone that I had been “bitten by the shutterbug”. That's what I was meant to do.
Skylum: Can you share your approach to photo editing?
A photographer friend once said, when you start to edit, edit from the back. Because the last shot you take, you know you have it. The shoot’s over, you've got it. He goes right in the money with that. I adopted this technique about 25 years ago, and it's proven to be quite effective.
The essence of editing is about curating the best images, eliminating the bad ones, and throwing out-of-focus ones. Editing is a lot of work. After a lengthy shoot like a camel or swimsuit session where you might have hundreds of rolls of film to sift through. That was never fun, especially opening the boxes and then laying out the slides. Yeah, it was brutal and I didn't really like the process that much.
Personally, I prefer editing smaller batches, around 200 rolls, which feels more manageable. During the early 2000s, I worked extensively with the Mamiya RZ medium format camera, and receiving large contact sheets back from the lab was always a delight. Opening each box felt like unwrapping a Christmas present, revealing the fruits of our labor from weeks earlier.
Skylum: What are your thoughts on AI? Do you believe it has the potential to replace photographers?
I think there are lots of potential concerns with it and of course, it needs to be further regulated. I believe there will always be a need for photographers. In a world full of diverse events and happenings, human photographers bring a unique perspective and insight that cannot be replicated by AI alone. That’s where the human factor comes into play.
The relationships I've cultivated with athletes and musicians over the years are incredibly special to me. I've been told that Michael Jordan was a great credential. He trusted me to capture his photo, and I took that responsibility seriously. Michael's confidence in my work opened doors for me with other stars who knew if he was comfortable with me, then they could be too. It all started with a Blue Dump in 87’, that was my 1st job. And after that, it was such a special picture. He trusted me. He always said to me, “I like the way you make me look.” And you couldn't take a bad picture of him. Then the following year, it was the Slam Dunk in Chicago. And after that, game on.
Skylum: What advice would you give to photographers who are just starting?
If you're passionate about something, you have to go after it; like anything in life, you've got to make things happen. When I first called Sports Illustrated, I remember I was sixteen (I still remember the phone number) and people would answer the phone. I got the Picture Editor I wanted to speak to. And I said, I'm a photographer, I've got a portfolio. He knew I was young. He said, “You got any nudes in it?” I said, nudes?! We scheduled an appointment and I took a train into the city. I met with them up at 50th and 6th. Immediately after they started giving me special assignments: go to Philadelphia and photograph somebody, they said, and we'll edit it. That's how it started. And then I was a professional.