In the pantheon of legendary sports photographs, there is “The Punch” (Muhammad Ali glowering over a flattened Sonny Liston), “The Catch” (San Francisco 49er Dwight Clark’s full-extension end zone grab), and, of course, “The Sports Bra” in which an exultant Brandi Chastain, having just kicked the World Cup-winning goal, ripped off her jersey and dropped to her knees, mouth open and fists clenched. Robert Beck, whose instantly iconic picture made the cover of Sports Illustrated, shot every type of major sporting event during his two decades as a staffer at the magazine—in no small part because of his ability to bring back pictures that looked like nobody else’s.
You’ve been shooting professionally for over 35 years, photographed every sport from hockey to golf, landed countless covers. Did you always want to be a sports photographer?
I actually started out as a schoolteacher, coaching football in the winter. But when the season was over, I thought, “how can I make a little extra money?” I’d borrow my dad’s camera and go to high school sporting events, a track meet or a baseball game, and I’d shoot slides, then take them back to the school later in the week to see if the kids wanted to buy some prints.
How did you get from shooting high school track meets to shooting the Super Bowl?
I’d always been a surfer so when I’d made enough money to buy my own camera and a water housing, I started shooting my friends. I began submitting to Surfer and Surfing magazines, and as I got better and better, I quit teaching all together just to give surf photography a try. After a few years at [the surf magazines], I joined a small stock agency in San Diego where I began shooting what I called “the big-time American sports,” and just kind of worked my way up the ladder from there.
Did anything you learned from photographing surfers carry over to shooting big stadium sports?
At the time, some of the things that I brought from surfing weren’t generally used in the other sports, like a fisheye lens. I brought it to hockey; that was kind of unusual. But the thing that helped me stand out from other photographers right off the bat was that I’d never shot those sports before. I knew a lot about them—I played baseball in high school—but shooting is different. In those days, everyone used a 600, everything was real tight, but I approached things differently: I shot with different lenses, so my stuff had a unique look to it.
When did that become clear to you?
Really, when I started shooting golf, a sport I knew nothing about. The other photographers were golf guys: They knew the difference between a 3-wood and a 3-iron. I had no idea. I wasn’t caught up in who was doing what; I was just looking for pretty pictures with the important people in them, and I think that really helped me stand out.
Do you remember any moments that transformed the way you approached your job?
There was a 49er game in the Bay Area—I couldn’t tell you when this happened— that ended up changing the way I thought about shooting. At the time, I wasn’t a regular with Sports Illustrated but I was shooting the game and [legendary SI photographer] Heinz Kluetmeier was shooting the game, too. You know when the field flips, all the photographers run from one end to another? I get to the other end and Heinz is laying on the ground shooting from a prone position with a wider lens than normal. You look around and everybody else is using a 400 and they’re all kneeling or standing, and here’s one guy laying down taking pictures. Just those three feet of elevation made a difference in what his pictures looked like.
So you walked away thinking…
That it’s time to figure out different things. That there’s more than one way to skin a cat. And that thinking became part of my arsenal for how I approach a shoot. When you’re just starting out in photography, you can be afraid to experiment because if you miss the picture, you might not get the call next time. That’s the price you pay. So it’s risky to take chances. It takes a little bit of gumption to jump outside the box.
One of your pictures that I love was taken from an unusual perspective. It’s a huge group of USC football players gathered around a single player who looks like he’s singing.
That was shot at the Coliseum in LA. In those days [the picture was made in 2003], the players would come out of the tunnel and go to the corner of the field and psych themselves up. This is actually one other thing I brought from surfing: There were contests and when they’d give out the trophies, a lot of times it would just turn into a mosh pit. I’d put my camera on a monopod and raise it up so I could get above everyone and shoot what was going on. For the USC picture, I overcooked it and bought an aluminum pole for pool cleaning that I could extend to 17 feet. I put a camera on the end of it and extended it over the huddle of guys. They’re 15 deep on a side, so I was able to get an angle that nobody else had.
Do you still use that setup?
I used it during games, which was unheard of back then, and at the National Championship in 2006, I used it with a fisheye and got the final touchdown: It showed the whole stadium, all the players, all the benches. Most people were probably shooting with a 200, focusing on the guy scoring or something. Again, that’s where you kind of have to take a risk and keep your fingers crossed. But after about two years, it spawned everyone else using various types of poles so I quit. Because when everybody’s trying to get the same picture, there’s no point. So on to better things.
What makes a great sports photo for you? What are you trying to capture?
To me, there’s all the technical jazz that goes into it: The color is right, it’s sharp, it’s the high point of action—
What do you mean by “high point of action”?
Let’s say a guy scores a big touchdown in an NFL game and it’s a great catch. The best picture is going to be when he’s up in the air, as high as he can go, with one hand pulling the ball in, as opposed to landing and he’s already secured the ball. There’s a big difference between those two frames: One’s the high point of the action; one’s the other side of the mountain. It’s like a spike on a graph: There’s leading up to it, there’s what it is, then there’s all the way back down. For every moment there’s a little peak, even if it’s just a millisecond. You know the high point when you have it.
Beyond all that, if you have a picture that nobody else has. That’s pretty hard to do these days because there are so many photographers. But you can’t get any better than that.
Which brings us to your Brandi Chastain shot, which is definitely a “high point of action” and a picture that nobody else got. How did you get it?
My job at the start of the game was to take an overview picture from the top of the stadium, but I actually couldn’t get up there because President Clinton was late and the Secret Service wasn’t letting anyone up. So I didn’t get that picture until nearly the end of the first half. During the second half, I shot the game but from a different angle, a spot kind of over a tunnel where the fans come in.
I didn’t know much about soccer and toward the end of the game, I said to Todd, who was helping me out, “What’s going to happen if it’s tied?” He said they’re going to have penalty kicks; then he told me he thought that that would happen at the other end of the field so the sun wouldn’t be in the goalie’s eyes. I said, “We’re too far away. We gotta go down to the field.”
Did you have field credentials?
We didn’t. But I knew the ins and outs of the Rose Bowl, and this was pre-9/11 so things weren’t as tight. I thought that when the playing was over, everybody would be so busy getting ready for the kicks that we’d be able to get to the field. So we went to the far tunnel and sure enough, we just walked on. We got to the spot but security didn’t want us there and moved a guy who was next to us. We were actually in the process of moving but we had so much gear and right when we were getting ready to clear out, the security guy says, “Don’t move. They’re about to start kicking. You have to stay still.”
At that point are you looking for an action shot or a reaction shot?
You’re trying to get the kick first, but you also assume there’s going to be some sort of reaction. The picture that was used on the cover of SI was shot as a horizontal; the team was behind her and I figured if she makes the kick, then the whole team will come running toward her and I’ll have the team in the background. Which is what we got, but Brandi gave us a little more. The magazine made it a vertical, and it turned out to be a great cover partially because there was only one word on it, and not all the usual crap.
Did you have a sense that the image would have the kind of staying power that it’s had?
At the time, I was glad I got the picture, and, no, I didn’t really think about how important it was in terms of its social impact. But a few years later I was at a college basketball event and Brandi was there, and I decided I’d introduce myself because she didn’t know who I was. So I go up to her and she says, “Hi, can I help you?” And I said, “I’m Robert Beck. I took that picture.” And she jumped on me and wrapped her arms around me. She was screaming and stuff. I was blown away. She was really emotional about it, and she said, “You don’t understand what that did for women athletes and little girls, hundreds of thousands of them. Now they know they can be athletes, they can be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, they can be famous, they can be important. That empowered a whole generation.” It’s pretty rare that a sports photo carries that extra layer. I hadn’t thought of it like that before. It was really a special moment.
Interview by Bill Shapiro
Bill Shapiro is the former Editor-in-Chief of LIFE magazine and the author of the new book, What We Keep.
More information on Robert Beck here.