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Student of the Game

Leonard Kamsler’s dedication to his craft has taken him from Marilyn Monroe to the Masters

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We made this at the [1974] U.S. Open at Winged Foot. I had to figure out how to get golfers into a blacked-out room to get their swings, but the clubhouse couldn’t fit us. Somebody had a barn off one of the fairways, so I rented it for the week. For this, we wanted a shot where you could read someone’s swing left to right on the page. So I developed a technique with stroboscopic lighting where I built a camera that moves 70-millimeter film at 12 inches per second. Then I had to figure out the mathematics of it: how many flashes per second versus how fast the film is moving. [Arnold] Palmer (above) was up to do it; he was always a very amiable guy. Never got [Jack] Nicklaus over there, though.

No. 2 at augusta national golf club is Leonard Kamsler’s favorite hole on the property to photograph. The fairway rises behind the green, he explains, and it has a good, clean background to take excellent approach shots. His voice suggests he’s back on the grounds, back with Golf magazine, checking off another full week of assignments. He not only knows exactly where, but which day and time, to catch the perfect shot. After all, Kamsler photographed the Masters every year from 1963 to 2002.

The opportunity to get so close that he could often reach out and touch four decades of golf history gives Kamsler a trove of wonderful Masters stories to go along with his stunning images. But it’s clear that he is no golf obsessive. He’s just as likely to tell a story about Dolly Parton using a bathroom break to trick a reporter friend into ending an interview or his time shooting Marilyn Monroe in 1950s Manhattan as he is to discuss his well-known shot of Tiger Woods winning the 2001 Masters or how Greg Norman liked him and Curtis Strange most certainly did not.

In fact, Kamsler, who is now in his 80s and still living in Manhattan, never played much golf. “I’m not good at liking things I’m bad at,” he says with a chuckle.

But he has always been serious about the craft of golf photography. While his tales are decidedly old-school, he has always been determined to use the most advanced technology at his disposal to create the best images. He might be more proud of his pioneering work photographing swing sequences than any shots he took on the course. When golf glossies began publishing the first instruction and swing breakdowns in the early 1960s, Kamsler was on the forefront, using strobes and ultra-high-speed cameras to create never-before-seen angles and effects.

“I got one [camera] that could do a hundred frames a second,” he says, still excited about it, “and a reel-to-reel 35-millimeter film in hundred-foot rolls.”

He has never stopped. In 2001, he used a relatively new program called Photoshop to piece together shots of Woods from the fairway and the green on the 18th hole as he completed his historic “Tiger Slam.” It remains his favorite image from Augusta. In 2004, The New York Times quoted Kamsler as being “happy to step out of the dark room” in a story on the rise of digital photography.

In fact, it was instruction, even more than his work at Augusta, that kept him in the golf business. Back in those days, photographers often were paid by the number of images that made the magazine. And while shooting golf tournaments was certainly considered more glamorous, Kamsler figured that instruction could both be lucrative and satisfy his incessant need to tinker.

“Nobody wanted to do instruction,” he says, as if now he can let us all in on the secret. “In a golf tournament, you go out, shoot four days, and you might get one or two pictures in the magazine. But if you do instruction, you can work an hour and get 12 pictures in there.”

Kamsler always wanted to be a photographer, and he started shooting sports at a time when enterprising young journalists could walk right into the Manhattan offices of Sports Illustrated or Golf and, if the idea and portfolio were good enough, leave with an assignment. Kamsler did exactly that, but only after working as an assistant to Milton H. Greene on one of his legendary shoots with Monroe in 1957. In 1959, he walked out of Golf’s newsroom with a job.

He first set foot on Augusta in 1963. Obviously, a lot changed during his tenure. “When I first got there, every time they had a big rain, it would flood the old press room and you’d see reporters sitting up on these benches along the wall with a typewriter in their laps,” he laughs.

One constant: the Club’s strict adherence to its rules, posted or otherwise. Kamsler never intentionally ran afoul of the law at Augusta, but he did have a few missteps. 

“One year I did a series called ‘Sunrise at Augusta,’” he says with another laugh. “The project was to show what goes on there before the people arrive.…So I found a place where they were making those [pimiento and ham and cheese] sandwiches at dawn, and I got in there and took the shots. Then we were told, ‘No, you can’t do that. We don’t want that shown.’ I don’t know. It seemed clean enough to me.”

Another adventure occurred before the sun came up, when Kamsler was shooting for a story on the course’s most difficult greens. Ever the perfectionist, he noticed the pins weren’t in the greens yet, so he convinced the superintendent to give him a flag he could use. “By the time I got to the second hole, the rangers were on top of me,” he says mischievously.

Kamsler remains addicted to his craft, doing the occasional shoot for his friend David Pelz; he’s responsible for the photography in several of Pelz’s books. He’s still behind the camera, telling stories about the past and forever delighted with what’s coming next.