Legendary photographer Walter Iooss Jr. has been a Golf Digest contributor since 2007, creating many memorable images of the game’s top players and personalities. Walter’s work for Golf Digest represents only a small part of a long and distinguished career. He got his start in photography at Sports Illustrated in the early 1960s, and his images have appeared on more than 300 of its covers. He has photographed all 51 Super Bowls and just about every iconic athlete of the past 50 years. His subjects include Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Pele, Wayne Gretzky, John McEnroe, Kelly Slater and Jack Nicklaus. In golf, two of his favorites to photograph were Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino. “I covered golf in Arnold’s heyday. You know, Arnie’s Army, the middle ’60s when he was The King,” Iooss says. “He was always so generous and kind. Arnold was always cool. I mean, he just swaggered around.”
To celebrate Walter’s 10 years as a Photographer at Large for Golf Digest, we asked him to select some of his favorite photos he’s shot for our magazine and share some details behind each image.
Arnold is among the top three athletes I’ve ever met. Could be No. 1 as a person. For this assignment, I’m thinking, This guy is 80 years old, has been photographed a million times, why is he giving me the time to photograph his grip? But that says something about Arnold. You look at his hands, and the strength in this. I always called it the grip of God. This is one of my favorite photographs I’ve taken.
We constructed a six-by-six box with a plexiglass top the night before the shoot. The plexiglass comes with a thin film covering that you peel off. We peeled off the bottom layer but left the top one on overnight. In the morning, when we peeled off the top, moisture from the cold caused the plexiglass to fog up. We wiped it off, but it would fog up again. We had to let it dry out, and it finally did only moments before Webb stepped on it. From there the shoot was pretty simple.
Jason arrived for the shoot a little disinterested. My longtime photo assistant, Troy (Troyzan) Robertson, has been a contestant on CBS’s “Survivor,” and it turns out Jason is a huge fan of the show. So that helped break the ice. Then we had a stylist who’d put a lot of lipstick on and then kiss him in a specific spot. Jason was like a comedian with takes. It was good that he had no hat. The restrictions that you have with so many players that are contractually obligated to wear a hat. If Dufner had worn a hat, it wouldn’t have been nearly as good. It’s just his hair.
The hardest thing with photographing Jordan is the damn hat. I’ve shot him four or five times now. The only thing I can think about is getting light under his hat. You have to shoot so low, and the lights have to be so low you can’t light him like you might someone else. He’s so young. He has to grow into being a star. That’s always the most difficult transition. The climb up is one thing. Once you get all the attention and everything that surrounds stardom, it becomes very difficult. That’s why a lot of people collapse. But he seems to be the exception.
This was the opening image used for Golf Digest’s Fitness Issue. She’s really into boxing for fitness. This same day Lexi also posed shirtless with just a towel draped over her for the cover. Taking your shirt off and posing for a camera in a studio full of men can’t be easy for anyone, but she was terrific. There was no reluctance to being photographed. She trusted everybody. She looked good. I think she felt she looked good.
I love Lee Trevino. He’s one of the funniest people I’ve met in sport in all my life. Lee and I go back—to the ’60s. In the middle ’70s, I did so many shoots with Trevino. In his home, I met his wife, his kids. He’s told me all kinds of insane stories. I had Thanksgiving dinner with him. The year he was Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, he fell asleep in the middle of the portrait session after Thanksgiving dinner. This picture here was of his beloved dog, Minnie. This is in one of his rooms of his home in Dallas. The Merry Mex. God love him.
Michael Jordan November 2009
Michael and I have a long history. I think SI sent me to cover him for the first time in 1987. This Golf Digest shoot was the first time I had seen him in a while. I had him hitting plastic balls over my head from about eight feet, and he took a divot as fat as a shovel, and it smashed into me. This gave him his greatest joy. At this same shoot, I arrived with a wad of cash—few hundred on the outside, but, like, a hundred ones on the inside—because I heard Michael likes to play big-money golf matches. I threw the wad of cash on the table and said, “I’m ready to go play you, Mike.” He said, “Walter, you don’t have enough money to play me. You can play behind me.” You take a lot of crap from Michael, but you have to give it right back to him.
Rocco was very good. We went to some boxing ring somewhere in Florida. We had a smoke machine in there. People actually train in this place, but we were able to clear it out for an hour. We got a robe. Strobed it. We had him spread eagle knocked out in one shot. But he played the role. Not everyone would do that. He’s got a good face. I don’t know if a lot of golfers would’ve done that or would’ve been as good. It was the right idea for the right player.
We had this giant canvas sky background, maybe 20 feet, and a giant fan, of course. A bunch of flags made in China. Everything was made in China. And we posed him in front of the sky, and it was a little bit like George Washington crossing the Delaware. I’d heard about his prickly reputation. But you know what, he was great—self-deprecating. You can’t judge someone until you meet them. He even said a lot of people don’t like me. But he was terrific.
Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Graeme McDowell, Rickie Fowler
This is a shoot that almost didn’t happen. It pored rain. The clubhouse was flooded. It was just a deluge. We show up at Liberty National in New Jersey with these four guys. I was dying to shoot Rory alone, but there was never a moment. We were going to shoot indoors, but we couldn’t. So we had to go outside. We only had a few minutes when the rain stopped. The wind is blowing. I had two assistants who would walk backward with portable strobes. This was really a hard shot to get, and I have to say it came out pretty well. To have four guys all look that way, and they look pretty good and happy given how crappy the conditions were.
I have a history with Tiger, too. In late 1999, I covered him for Sports Illustrated, and my whole theory in golf was, get a good picture. If I get thrown out, I get thrown out. I don’t care. I’ve gotten thrown out of a lot of golf tournaments in my career. So I went out with a 4x5 camera and film, polaroid film, to shoot him. I had to get close to him. Real close. We’re about five holes in, and he knows I’m there. Whether he knows who I am or not I’m not so sure. But I can see him looking at me, and I am close. So he tees off, and you know how skittish they can be about photographers behind them when they tee off. The camera doesn’t make any noise. So I take a picture, and he goes over to the side. I’m standing there, and I’m feeling bad vibes. I see [caddie] Steve Williams and him talking. They look over toward me, and they’re nodding their heads. They’re like, Yeah, that ass hole. I’m thinking, This is going to be bad. I try to avoid them, but Steve comes up to me and says, “Hey mate, you ever cover a golf tournament before?” I said, “I’ve covered many, many.” And he said, “Keep the camera out of our face.” So now it’s many months later, and Sports Illustrated sends me to Florida to do a cover of Tiger. I’ve never really met him. So I said, “Tiger, I’m Walter Iooss, Sports Illustrated. I covered you at Carlsbad, did you notice me?” He goes, “Every hole.” So we became friends after that. I never got much time with him, but he was always good. For this Golf Digest shoot, I got 7½ minutes. You have to do your job in a specific amount of time. When Tiger came in the studio, I thought, How do you slow this down? Because when someone comes in like this, they want to get it over with. So I started speaking slowly. He comes in, hugs, says hello. I say, “Tiger, I want to show you what we have planned just so you know what we’re doing.” So I showed some Sports Illustrated swimsuit photos. And, bingo. He says, “Is that Marisa Miller?” And I said, “Yeah.” So I knew I had him. You have to break the rhythm sometimes with these guys when you only have 7 minutes. Next time we shot him, which was a few years later, I had about 10 minutes, and I was finished in nine just to show him I could do it. Tiger, I’m going to finish early.
Michael J. Fox
Wow, that was some day. I photographed Michael J. Fox in the morning in New York City and President Clinton later that day at Liberty National for Golf Digest’s Golfers Who Give Back issue. With Michael we picked a time, which was about 10:30, when they thought he was at his best for the day, because of his Parkinson’s. He’s as good a person to work with as I’ve ever worked. He listens to your idea, and then he just riffs and brings things that are unimaginable. He’s a great actor. His expressions, how he played with things, he was damn good. He was one of the best posers I’ve ever worked with.
We shot this at Collins Avenue, South Beach. We rented the car and just parked it on the side of the street and lit it. Yeah, it’s a beautiful shot. Twilight. We had a very short window for great light. We got there a lot earlier and did some other shots, but really we were just waiting on the sun to drop to get that balance of light: dark enough for the lights of the buildings to take effect, but still light enough in the sky and dark enough to see all that neon. It was a neat shot. Ashley Durham, Miss Tennessee in 2011, was the model in the car.
We built an outdoor studio using duvetyne, a velvet-like fabric. Essentially it was a big black box, and I did a whole series of pictures of athletes from around the world using this setup and available light, no strobes. This was taken on a rooftop at some hotel outside D.C. This was next to a pool. So I’m looking at him in this black box, and he’s looking out at the people around the pool. Funny the situations you find yourself in. Ishikawa was good to work with. What makes this photograph is his eyes. He’s got really beautiful eyes. And he’s cool with his clothes. And that hat—very skateboard.
This was shot in a studio in Miami. It was quite a day in the least. And maybe the most controversial cover in the history of Golf Digest. Once we got rolling on this, she was good. We did the cover portrait, and then I photographed her doing exercises for a fitness story. I didn’t know what the cover would be. I’ve never seen a golfer dressed like this. I knew [her father, Wayne]. She knew of me through her dad, and I showed her some of the portraits I’ve shot of Wayne over the years to break the ice.
Miguel Angel Jimenez
Miguel is one of these guys I wish I could communicate with better, because you know he’s funny. I’m sure he’s a lot like Trevino. And he’s got that great face. He was smoking cigars, and he had been drinking wine the night before. You can tell he’s a player in every sense of the word. He lives the life of a European. A sample of all the goodness of Europe: the wine, the cigars. Live it up while you can. We were going to do a portrait of him with his bag. And apparently he has an exercise routine that he does before he plays, and somehow that came up, and he started demonstrating it for us. Once he got into that squat, I said OK. This is it.
We shot this at the Biltmore in Miami—Coral Gables. Nice player. Loves her game. Beautiful swing. Her mother and father were there. Sort of her home course. Being an actress helps. They have an immediate comfort factor and ability to move in front of the camera that you just can’t teach. Kathryn is one of, if not the best, golfer in Hollywood.