Legends of Photography: Walter Iooss



Described as “the poet laureate of sports,” Bernstein hosts Walter Iooss in the Legendary Photographers Series of the Legends of Sport podcast. Iooss shot his first Sports Illustrated cover at age 19 and hundreds of covers since.    

About his first cover Iooss recalls: “It came out in March ‘63…I remember it vividly: Sports Illustrated sent me to Clearwater to photograph my Fighting Phillies,” Iooss said.

His photos tell the story of the greatest moments in sports history of the last half century, including, Dwight Clark’s “The Catch” and Michael Jordan’s free throw line dunk.

Iooss has also contributed to every issue of SI’s swimsuit issue since its inception.

Bernstein and Iooss discuss the legendary Neil Leifer who, along with Iooss is on Bernstein’s personal Mount Rushmore of sports photography. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Leifer said of Iooss “I’ve seen Walter be at the wrong place and get the right picture and I’ve seen him be at the right place with the wrong camera and still get the right picture.” 

“I’ve always believed that whatever place you go to you have to make a decision, ‘this is the right place.’ You can’t second guess yourself. It’s instinctual. It’s part of my fascination with sport as an escape when I was growing up,” Iooss said.

It was his father, a musician and photographer, who first encouraged Iooss to shoot when he was 15. Iooss shot his first roll of film at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx with a camera his father bought him. In 1959, he pitched Sports Illustrated.

Leifer and Iooss have one of the longest, friendliest rivalries in sports photography. They vied for weekly Sports Illustrated covers and often were sent to the same games. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Iooss joked that Leifer was always one step ahead of him.

“It was great that we had different ways to operate. Our backgrounds are completely different,” Iooss said. 

Iooss also discusses his approach to photographing iconic athletes like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. Iooss recalls pitching the concept to Jordan and collaborating with author Mark Vancil to document Jordan’s life in the groundbreaking book “Rare Air.”

He described his first meeting with Michael Jordan in July 1997 when Sports Illustrated sent him to phonograph Jordan at a kids’ camp. The next day, Iooss photographed the iconic “Blue Dunk” image using a cherry picker and a hoop that was brought in from St. Louis. 

“He was as beautiful a player as you could ever watch. Kobe’s right up there,” Iooss said. “The intensity Michael had to win at all costs and how he drove people.”

Bernstein and Iooss wrap up the conversation with a discussion about Jordan and Bryant who Iooss described as “Jordan reincarnated.”

Listen to the full podcast here. Watch the videocast on the @legendsofsport Instagram and Youtube channel and video highlights on TikTok.


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