Walter Iooss Where Legends Still Play

Where Legends Still Play

In a rare tour through his personal studio, Walter Iooss Jr. shares the stories behind his iconic images

Jack Nicklaus was smoking. It was February of 1967. The 27-year-old already had six major championships on his résumé; that heady spring, it felt like he could win 100. He was one of the brightest stars in any sport, which in those days meant a cover story with Sports Illustrated. Nicklaus walked into the photo shoot still working on a cigarette, and the photographer, a 23-year-old with his own designs on sports supremacy, was immediately inspired. He ordered Nicklaus to keep the cigarette lit, reached into his pocket and handed the Golden Bear his Ray-Bans. The resulting image has become one of the best-known portraits in sports history, let alone in golf.

“And Jack hates it,” Walter Iooss Jr. says with a laugh. “Years later, I asked him to write a foreword to one of my books, and he said he’d only do it if I took the picture out. But I couldn’t do it.”

Walter Iooss Where Legends Still Play

Iooss (pronounced “ee-YOSS”) tells me this as we sit on his patio overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on a breezy, postcard-perfect day in Montauk, New York. He’s been out here with his artist wife, Eva, for decades, before the castles on the prestigious tip of Long Island began springing up around him. The photographer for this story and I had quickly rearranged our schedules when Iooss granted a rare invitation to visit. We’d heard that he’s kept everything, that his basement studio is a shrine to a storied career that began when Sports Illustrated hired him as a 17-year-old in 1961. He’s now in his early 80s, but still spry enough to swing a golf club in his backyard and lament his “for shit” short game.

“Alright, you guys drove all the way out here,” he says with a mischievous grin. “Let’s go downstairs.”

He opens the door and we gasp. There isn’t a sports image in sight. Instead, lining the simple, elegant white walls is a who’s who of modern photography: Aquila degli Abruzzi by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Danny Clinch’s portrait of Bruce Springsteen, jazz scenes from Herman Leonard, Annie Leibovitz’s classic with Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in Blues Brothers garb, along with more from Alfred Eisenstaedt, Irving Penn, Sebastião Salgado, James Nachtwey, Alfred Wertheimer and Peter Beard.

“Look at these!” he raves, still awed as if this is the first time he’s seeing them. “You can’t really get stuff like this in sports, but damned if we weren’t going to try.”

There is a powerful argument that he has succeeded. Born in 1943 in East Orange, New Jersey, Iooss was always attracted to the city across the river. His father was a jazz musician and loved photography. They spent weekends sharing the camera, shooting Yankees and Giants games (although he admits, forlornly, to being a Mets and Jets fan). From the moment he developed his first roll of film in his darkroom in 1959, Iooss says, he knew his path. He reached out to Sports Illustrated, got his first assignment and never looked back. And while he’s traveled the world, his New York sensibilities have never left him.

“I still love to ride my bike in the city,” he says. “You learn faster in Manhattan. You have to think, be aware and, oftentimes, be fearless.”

With north of 300 SI covers—more than any other photographer—along with several best-selling photo books, including the iconic Rare Air with Michael Jordan, Iooss is responsible for how legions of fans will forever see their favorite athletes. His work has been the subject of several gallery shows in New York and Los Angeles, as well as a solo auction at Christie’s. He was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame in 2018.

As we make our way through his multi-room basement, which also functions as cozy den and technical workspace, Iooss’ images overtake the classics that welcomed us. The photos are loosely organized in large-format prints, books, folders and old film boxes. There’s a coffee table with yellowed prints from 1980s surf trips under its glass; one of his more famous shots is of Kelly Slater surfing on an actual door while wearing a suit. He’s into collage work these days, and massive ones featuring Jordan, Tiger Woods and former Reds star Reggie Sanders frame the walls. He launches into the lore surrounding all of them, and it becomes clear that Iooss’ memory is a gift on par with the trove of images. 

He has the backstory behind every photo we ask about. He regales us about the night Kevin Garnett took him to listen to music with legendary R&B producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in Minneapolis before what would become the best-known shoot of the Hall of Famer’s career; challenging Reggie Jackson to hit a home run at Yankee Stadium for an SI cover (which he promptly did); going to Muhammad Ali’s Kentucky farm when the champ was near the end; giving technical camera tips to a young Ken Griffey Jr. (who has become a noted photographer post-baseball); and how Jordan gave him his greatest compliment: “He’s quick and he’s good.”

Golf, Iooss tells us, is one of his favorites to shoot. “It’s a beautiful game,” he says, pausing before another torrent of anecdotes. “And so many outrageous characters.” He lands on a photo of Nicklaus, which leads to the time they were playing barefoot tennis at the Nicklaus compound in South Florida on a different SI shoot, where Iooss whacked his host with an overhead smash. (“Best look at that famous ‘Bear stare’ I ever got.”) That melts into how he got his press credential revoked by former USGA chief Joe Dey at the 1968 U.S. Open at Oak Hill. (“I don’t know—musta stepped in a bunker or something. I had to have my editors call to get me back in.”) He confesses that Lee Trevino might be the funniest athlete of all time, asks me to put my pen down and confirms that statement with several eye-popping off-the-record yarns.

He didn’t get into any off-the-record trouble with Woods, but Iooss loved working with the man who took the SI cover mantle from Arnold Palmer and Nicklaus. “The secret with some of these massive stars is trying to understand where they’re coming from,” Iooss says, pulling out a portrait of a young and beaming Woods. “With Tiger, I knew everyone wanted a piece of him and his time was important. So my first shoots with him, I always made sure to get done early. He loved it and was great about every request we made after that.”

We move over to a section of older prints, and I let out a “whoa” when Iooss shows us the shot of Palmer with his arm draped around the shoulder of former President Dwight Eisenhower at the 1965 PGA Championship. He explains how he was in the right place at the right time: He knew Palmer would be in the clubhouse and that Eisenhower was on property at Laurel Valley Golf Club, but he had to react quickly when the two embraced.

“It was completely unplanned, and it all happened in about three minutes,” Iooss says, shaking his head. “That became one of the most popular photos I took, I think because it caught them in such a cool, unguarded moment. I’ve always said it’s better to be lucky and good.”

Then he looks up at another framed portrait of Palmer, from when the King was late in life. “This may sound cliché,” he says, “but Arnie might be the greatest human I’ve met on this job. More than anyone else, he cared. He took time with people. He made sure every autograph for every kid was legible. He was a true gentleman. I was once in his office in Latrobe for a story, and I saw a framed photo I’d shot of him and Jack prominently displayed. I almost cried on the spot.”

Iooss isn’t some old man getting overly sentimental. He keeps that New York hustler’s edge sharp, still picking up work and maintaining his popular Instagram feed. But, like his photography, he is sensitive when the moment calls for it. I ask how much time he spends with his images. “I love it down here,” he says quietly, shuffling through ever more Jacks and Arnies and Lees. “It’s my life.”

Walter Iooss Where Legends Still Play Eisenhower Palmer
Walter Iooss Where Legends Still Play Chi Chi Rodriguez
Iooss admits that of all the sports he covered, golf was one of his favorites. Characters like Chi-Chi Rodríguez (above) and Ben Hogan (below) kept him endlessly entertained. But his preferred subject, and the focus of many of his best-known images, was Arnold Palmer.
Walter Iooss Where Legends Still Play Ben Hogan
Walter Iooss Where Legends Still Play ARNOLD PALMER
Walter Iooss Where Legends Still Play