Capturing Matthew Wolff's genius is harder than it looks

October 22, 2019

Adam Levey

I can’t really explain how our cover image of Matthew Wolff this month came about. But I was there.

“Stroboscopic” photography has a highly technical language all its own, but anyone can appreciate it. Photographer Adam Levey, based in Portland, Ore., and his assistants began hauling gear into a large ballroom at the PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., at 6 a.m. to be ready when Wolff arrived at 11. Watching this crew erect, test and fine-tune its veritable orchestra pit of reflectors, batteries, timers and more reconfirmed my decision to follow a career of simpler tools. All I had to remember for the day was my notebook, pen and backup pen.

Photographers agree Howard Schatz, 79, is the grandfather of this special effect of presenting motion in a still image, but Levey, 48, is one of a handful who’ve pioneered how to do it cleanly in one take. Levey has shot baseball swings and skateboard kick-flips, but the CrossFit devotee hasn’t been around golf much. So aside from the important work of getting breakfast sandwiches delivered to the set, my other duty was to explain to Levey the principles of the golf swing, and how Wolff’s majestic violation of some of those principles is what we wanted to capture.

Perhaps frustrated by my inability to verbalize clearly what he needed to know, Levey pleasantly suggests that I step in and demonstrate. I happen to be about the same height as Wolff, so at the very least can serve as a double to aid the framing.

Someone kills the lights. Instantly, I can’t see my hands on the club. Blindly channeling my best impression of Matthew Wolff, I pirouette onto my left big toe and swing the club hard across the line. Under a machine-gun fire of lights, I try to re-route the shaft shallow on the way down. Good thing I don’t actually have to hit a ball, or I might’ve whiffed.

Several takes later, punchdrunk from the heat of the flashing lights, I bellow something stupid and cocky-sounding like, “OK, now get ready for my real Matt Wolff loop de loop.” Just my luck, that’s when Matthew walks through the door, flanked by his agent, swing coach and mother. The lights come on.

I bumble over to introduce myself and apologize, two things I generally try to avoid doing concurrently.

If Wolff is offended by my mimicry, he doesn’t show it. He’s jazzed about his first major magazine cover shoot and having his mom in town to help him house shop. They’ve pretty much settled on a nice little spread in Jupiter, and Wolff enjoys busting the chops of his California-based coach, George Gankas: “It’s very close to a hotel, so I can just drop you off there.”

Wolff cracks more jokes as we work through some snafus, like having to adjust the giant black cloth hanging from the ceiling. Once, when the lights fire prematurely—60 times in three seconds—Wolff drops his driver and feigns being cinematically riddled by bullets. It’s Willem Dafoe in “Platoon” or James Caan in “The Godfather,” except of course, this 20-year-old might have more recent references in mind.

“I’ve worked with veteran athletes who’ve sort of resented the stroboscopic thing because the session can be a lot,” Levey says. “Matthew made the photos better because he was open, having fun and wanted to be a part of the process. It’s always exciting being around a young athlete who’s just starting to taste success.”

Wolff’s life and career could go anywhere from here. But to see more on his wild and wonderful swing.