Two photographers walk into the Augusta National clubhouse in the mid-1990s. One of them is Leonard Kamsler. They sit down for a civilized lunch, a rare opportunity during Masters week to eat off of porcelain instead of from a green plastic baggie. “Leonard!” someone shouts, as if he’s bumped into his old college roommate in the last place on earth he’d ever look for him. Leonard turns to his dining companion. “Fred,” he says, “meet the Oak Ridge Boys.”
Leonard Kamsler passed away in 2020 at the age of 85, just a few months after he’d received the PGA of America’s first lifetime achievement award in photojournalism. Leonard had style. He grew up in North Carolina, graduated from Duke University and cruised around in a cherry-red Cadillac convertible. On the sliding Mayberry scale, he dressed sort of halfway between Otis Campbell and Mayor Roy Stoner. It was hard to tell if his suspenders held his slacks up or his stomach in. His favorite Augusta restaurant was Morrison’s Cafeteria because he could find all his favorite Southern delicacies there. Leonard could give Morrison’s two shots on each side of the buffet and whip it one-handed. And none of that tells you a damn thing about Leonard Kamsler, because the man was a brilliant, brilliant artist.
The vagaries of film are difficult to explain in the age of pixels, but in the days of 35 mm Nikons and Canons, photographic techniques were a savage beast of another sort. The artist’s eye may be the same, but translating what you saw in your mind into what you got on film was complicated and exacting. And nobody did it better than Leonard.
His Southern accent had a gentle uplift, like a balloon floating away if you let go of the string. As magnificent as his work was, he always approached it as just that. He was the first photographer I ever knew who would charge some (but not all) clients a research fee. “Well, you know,” he’d explain to them softly, “it’s not like it’s on the top of the pile.”
They never made a pigeonhole big enough to squeeze Leonard into. Sure, he photographed 40 straight Masters—and you’ll enjoy some of his best stuff on the following pages—but that only scratches the surface.
His portrait library of country-and-western performers, accumulated through a roughly 10-year association with Country Music magazine, was purchased by the Country Music Hall of Fame. Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn, plus Leonard’s Bicentennial portrait of Dolly Parton, were all in there.
Leonard didn’t have a handicap because he never played golf. He dissected it, more or less singlehandedly inventing the swing sequence. When he got interested in stroboscopic technology, he sought out professor Harold Edgerton at MIT, who’d pioneered it. And when he wanted a camera that could shoot 60 frames per second, he visited Charles Hulcher, who’d invented a diabolically simple yet infuriatingly undependable camera designed for the express purpose of photographing rocket launches at the dawn of the Space Age.
I confess to having personal experience with the Hulcher, which, for a golf photographer, is like having personal experience with swine flu. I won’t trouble you with the causes, but, like they used to say of the forward pass in football, three things could happen and two of them were bad. You might get Tiger Woods smashing a driver or you might get 100 feet of wadded-up plastic spaghetti, and that’s if the film didn’t snap in half first. Leonard didn’t just master this torture chamber; he invented ways for Hulcher to improve it, even cranking the speed up to 100 frames per second.
Back in that day, if you wanted quality photographs of, say, the NBA or Stanley Cup finals, you had to put strobes in the arena ceiling, effectively lighting the whole place. Leonard wasn’t a basketball or hockey junkie. No, he strobed the circus. He shot Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, Siegfried & Roy and the quintuple somersault of the Flying Cranes in the Moscow Circus.
His ballet photography was every bit the equal of his swing sequences. Leonard did the commercial work for Danskin and produced a magnificent poster titled “The Magic of Dance” with Dame Margot Fonteyn. But what else would you expect of someone whose earliest assignments included portrait work with Marilyn Monroe?
So, by all means, enjoy this sampling of four decades at the Masters. But know it’s merely the tip of the iceberg in the career of an artistic wizard.
Gene Sarazen (left), who won the second-ever Masters in 1935, enjoys the clubhouse veranda in 1969. Fred Couples (right), the 1992 champion, during his first appearance in 1983. Raymond Floyd (below), the 1976 champion, tees off on a much different 12th hole in 1990.
There was a time when players could see the clubhouse barber before their tee time (top left, from 1980). Traffic on Washington Road (bottom left) has changed a bit since 1967. The cameras on No. 18 (right) roll as Nicklaus captures his first green jacket in 1963.
The galleries swell (left) during Arnold Palmer’s fourth Masters victory in 1964. Jack Nicklaus (right) blasts out of the second cut on the way to his fourth Masters win in 1972.
In Kamsler’s day, helicopters and blimps were needed to get aerial shots of the golf course like this one from 1977 (left). And while they’ve been updated since this 1976 shot (right), the champions locker room still has wooden lockers and plenty of card tables.
Gone are the days when Lee Trevino (above, left, in 1970) could pause a range session to make a pay phone call and this gentleman (above, right, in 1977) guarded the media center.
Lee Elder (above, left) and Arnold Palmer (above, right) no longer stalk the fairways of Augusta. But some things never change: Two-time champion Tom Watson (below, left, from 1981) will be revered, and patrons (below, right, in 1984) will never be allowed to run.