A LENS DIMLY
Being the junior staffer meant that I worked nights. The Village of Rockville Centre had a summer basketball league at the local park. I got to cover that. The teams were made up of a bunch of teens and young men in their 20's. They would show up at their assigned basketball court and they'd flip a coin to see who were the skins and who were the shirts. You didn't think that they actually had uniforms, did you? The only way to differentiate between the two teams was that one side wore their t-shirts and the other didn't. Of course, there were no numbers identifying them. The first game I ever covered, I figured that since they wore no numbers, I didn't have to worry about identifying the players I photographed.
Wrong!. Sully, the Night Photo Editor chewed out my ass, when I got back.
"We can't run pictures of people without identifying them!" he bellowed.
"But, Sully," I moaned, "They don't wear numbers. How the hell can I identify them?"
"That's your problem," was the answer.
I was back at the park a couple of nights later. I went up to each team and asked if they could spare someone from their bench to stand next to me and supply me with the names of the players in each of my shots.
"Bench? What bench?" they said.
They barely had five players to field a team.
If this had only been 25 years later, I would have been using digital cameras and I could go to them after the game and show them the photos on the screen on the back of my camera for them to identify. But, this was the '60's and I was shooting film with a 4 X 5 Speed Graphic.
So, after making each shot, I would run down court with the players shouting, "You! The Skin's left forward who made that last shot..what's your name?" I would scribble his response on my caption pad and then shout to another guy, "You! Shirt's guard, what's your name?"
If I managed to id the shooter and the defender, I guessed that it would satisfy Sully. I really had to work to get a caption when I shot four or five guys going up for a rebound. I tried to avoid those.
High school basketball was a bitch. But, at least the players wore uniforms with numbers. None of the schools printed programs and there could be as many as 20 players on each team. If I could, I would get there early and copy each name out of the coach's roster along with the numbers. Sometimes a player's mother hadn't laundered his jersey so he would wear another. Now the number was different. Only I didn't know that. Naturally, that player always appeared in the paper the next day and with the wrong name. That meant a correction in the paper the day after that. And, another ass-chewing for me. Cripes!
Soon we were using 35mm cameras. We quickly learned to boost film speed and sometimes we could shoot a game without using flash. That made for some much better photographs. But, too many high school gyms were dark dungeons, so we were back to flash, again. The coaches always objected to us shooting a flash in the face of their player who was charging into the basket to make a lay-up.
"You're blinding them!" they would scream at me.
"I have no choice," I would tell them. "If you don't want flash used, tell the school to put in better lighting."
Hah! You know that never happened. So, it was a constant battle.
High school wrestling was no joy, either. Getting id's was simple. Getting good action wasn't. This wasn't the circus sport of pro wrestling where all kinds of crazies chase each other in and out of the ring. This is Greco-Roman style wrestling where the combatants might circle around the ring for an inordinate amount of time, looking for an advantage. Eventually, one might grasp his opponent in some kind of a lock and they might stay like that for another inordinate amount of time. Boring.
Track and Field wasn't so bad. There were opportunities to be had by being innovative with your camera placement. I once placed my camera with a very wide angled lens into the sand pit where the broadjumpers would land. One of them landed a foot from my lens and I got a really neat shot of him grimacing from his effort as a spray of sand shot up from his feet. The camera had to go back to Nikon to remove the grit from the working parts, but it was a neat shot.
The best was high school football. I found that it helped that I had played a little high school football a few years earlier, so I kinda knew what to expect. The neat thing about high school football is that there are so many broken plays among these inexperienced teens that it often leads to some good action. And, the schools print up programs for each game, which contains a roster of the players and their numbers.
Once in a blue moon, I would get a taste of the big time at some major sporting event; like the time I was assigned to cover Giant Football Coach Allie Sherman's last game. He was getting the axe after a long string of losing seasons and Newsday was doing a feature on his last game. All they wanted me to do was get some pictures of Sherman as his career wound down. The paper got me a sideline pass. They weren't looking for any game action from me. The wires would supply that. I could focus on the coach.
It was the first time that I had ever been this close to pro football action. I had seen games on tv and had even seen a few Giant's games from the stands. So, it blew my mind, the first time I saw the first scrimmage from just a few yards away. Now I know why they call them Giants. Actually, that term could apply to all the teams in the league. These guys were huge. Now, I was no slouch in the size department. I stood 6' 4" tall and weighed in at 230 pounds, back then. But, those guys standing along the sidelines, waiting their turn to get into action would blot out the sun. They were huge; both in height and in girth. And, as I stood there at the line of scrimmage and heard the quarterback calling off the signals, I wasn't prepared for what came next.
The quarterback called out the numbers and when he shouted, "HUT!," the ball was snapped and two walls of flesh threw themselves against each other. There was a collective "WHUFF" as the breath was knocked out of about eighteen massive linemen and the clatter and clash of all of their pads and protective equipment sounded like two huge tractor trailers colliding on the Long Island Expressway. Good God! I couldn't understand how anyone could survive the carnage. And, that was just the first play of the game.
I managed to get what I was sent to get; pictures of the departing coach. I even tried to make some game action shots, because what photographer could resist the opportunity from such a vantage point. But, I realized that I would be no competition to the wires who out gunned me with long lenses that could really home in on the action.
A few times I was sent to the Giant's summer training camp when they held their Photo Opportunity Day. One day a year, newspapers were invited to send reporters and photographers to the camp to photograph every player. These would be used during the playing season to illustrate a feature on any given player. By this time, Newsday had a full time Sports Photographer who covered major league sports. But, they wouldn't waste him on something as mundane as Photo Opportunity Day. He would probably be covering a Yankee baseball home game. So, I would schlep the two and a half hours each way, to the Giant's camp in southern New Jersey. I didn't look forward to it, mainly because of the fact that I didn't cover the team during the playing season so I didn't have the slightest idea of who was who. It was the same for most of the forty or more photographers who showed up and the players knew this and had a lot of fun at our expense.
The drill was that at some point, all the players would form one long line down the field, standing shoulder to shoulder, dressed in their game jerseys. The team hadn't cut their roster of players yet, so there could be a hundred or more of them in the line up. At least it seemed that way. The photographers would break up into two groups, with one group would start at the left side of the line and the other group would start at the right. You would stand in front of the first player and compose a tight headshot that would include his jersey number. After banging out a couple of frames, you would ask the player for his name and spelling and then move on down to the next.This took awhile to accomplish. The players soon got bored and that's when the fun started. Even though I didn't know the players, I soon got the feeling that I was seeing familiar faces as I moved down the line. The bastards were jumping the line as soon as the group of photographers were done. They were switching jerseys with other players and giving phony names. This resulted in me coming back with far more players than there were in the camp, and God only knows if any of the names matched the faces.
Like I said, we now had a Sports Photographer to cover major league game action. Sometimes, I would get to cover a game. I was now working days and Opening Day of the Baseball season used to take place in the afternoon. I would be sent to Yankee Stadium or to Shea Stadium for the Mets. In addition to game action and sidebars, like getting some notable throwing out the first ball, I would also get some fan reaction and crowd scenes. I was also asked to go to the visiting team's dugout to get a headshot of one of their players who would be the focus of a sidebar feature. I could probably recognize most of the Yanks or Mets players, but the visiting team was another story. My assignment sheet would have a name, Jose Jones, and I would have to go to the visitor's dugout. Jose Jones was probably a well-known athlete whom every Sports Photographer would recognize instantly. Not me. I would have to go to the dugout and ask the first player I saw for Jose Jones. That was embarrassment enough. But, to compound it, usually the guy I asked was the guy I was looking for and he would say, "I'm Jose Jones," with a voice that oozed ice.
One year, when the Sports Photographer was out of town, covering another assignment, I was asked to work nights to cover a NY Mets game. It would be years before digital photography was introduced and we would be able to transmit our photos back to our office via computers. So, the drill was for the photographer to shoot about 5 or 6 innings and then hi-tail it back to the office to make deadline. On this particular night, I packed up my equipment and headed out to the parking lot to get my car. As I was weaving in and out of parked cars, trying to locate my own, a voice called out.
"Hey Mack! What's the score?"
It was some late arriving fan and his lady.
Score? Score? What's the score? I realized that not only didn't I know the score, I didn't even know who the Mets were playing. I realized that your whole world is seen through a tiny rectangular window at the back of your camera and you are so focused on getting peak action, that you might just as well be practicing Zen on some mountaintop. Anything beyond that little window ceases to exist. I was forced to reconsider my earlier opinion that being a Sports Photographer would be a real cushy job. Despite the fact that I had a ringside seat of the sport from a press box; I could see more and enjoy more of the game watching it on tv from the comfort of my own home. Now that's an epiphany.
One time I was sent to Yankee Stadium, in The Bronx. I eased into my seat in the press booth behind home plate. I recognized most of the photographers there. There were still quite a few daily papers left in New York City back then, and each of us had a spot reserved for our newspaper on the ledge where we affixed a camera mount for our long glass. Newsday had a 600mm stored in an equipment locker in the booth and I screwed that onto the mount. Most of the guys were using Nikons or Canon 35mm cameras with 600's on the front. But, a few were still using Hultchers. Hultcher was an outfit that took old military aerial cameras with long focal length lenses and rigged them to be used as sports cameras. They were very effective and used large roll film formats. There was a rudimentary viewfinder to help you aim this bulky camera. Focusing was something else. Aerial cameras are designed to be shot from great altitudes and focus at infinity, so there's no need to focus them. However, for sports use, you have to be able to focus on different parts of the playing field. Every photographer had to adjust his Hultcher for every sports venue. When he arrived at a stadium, he would have to take off the film magazine and affix a pane of ground glass to the focal plane. There was a lever on the side of the camera that shifted the lens and using the image on the ground glass, he would move the lever until home plate was sharp. He would then set an indent mechanism at that point on his focusing lever. Next he would focus on the pitcher's mound and that would cover the pitcher, and first and third base. When that indent was in place he would go on to mark second base and shortstop and then the near outfield and the far outfield. Now, as he followed the action, he could shift the focusing lever, feeling for each indent to click in, with the knowledge that his photos would be in focus. Operating a Hultcher at an exciting and action packed ball game was like going through the gears while driving a big rig across country.
I had never operated one before. In fact, this day at Yankee Stadium was the first time that I had ever seen one.
Most of the photographers were in place when the game began. Except for one. He was a shooter for one of the big NY City papers and he had a terrible drinking problem. Getting there late didn't seem to bother him. He managed to set up his Hultcher and then he disappeared. Someone saw him passed out on a bench at the back of the press booth. What happened next was typical of the way we helped each other out in those days. I'm not sure if you would find that attitude anymore. Someone made sure that he was comfortable and still breathing. And then, every photographer in the booth gave up a half an inning to operating the guy's Hultcher, including myself. A messenger from the guy's paper arrived to pick up his film and there was a film magazine filled with good action photography.
PART II OF A SPORTS SHOOTER I"M NOT IN NEXT MONTH'S
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