The art of photography is often far more than art. Take the June 10 edition of Sports Illustrated and the cover photograph of “The Biggest 3: A Trio the Likes of Which We Will Never See Again.” That would be The Spur’s Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. A more accurate deconstruction of the photograph might read like this: art = access + timing + hard work + logistics + teamwork + a world-class portrait photographer.
Meet Houston photographer Robert Seale, the talented portrait photographer whose work is as well-known in the corner offices of CEOs as it is in the world of sports. It’s no surprise that Sports Illustrated editors called Seale and asked him to double-time it to San Antonio once they made the decision was made to feature the Spurs on the edition preceding the NBA Finals.
Hopefully, tonight the Spurs avenge their heartbreaking loss to the Miami Heat in Game Six and prove Sports Illustrated editors to be the prescient bunch we know they are, right? Go, Spurs, Go!
The Spurs appeared on every news stand in America only a few weeks after the Chicago Sun-Times, a newspaper with more lives than a cat, announced it was eliminating its staff photographers. The SI Spurs cover and the Chicago layoffs might seem unrelated, but one offers an example of how important photography is to great story telling. All the iPhones and Instagram in the world can’t equal the pros with cameras in hand. No matter how good the technology becomes, it’s still that: technology. A tool is a tool until it’s put in the hands of a talented individual who can think and create, two things tools don’t do.
Seale is not only a very talented portrait photographer. He also writes about his craft, which gives the aficionado of good photography a much greater appreciation of how a concept or idea hatched on deadline becomes an actual image powerful enough to catch the eye and attention of millions of people. And not all of them Spurs fans, believe it or not. You can read Seale’s blog here.
He writes extensively about the SI assignment to shoot the Spurs stars, who he said made reluctant story subjects. The Spurs don’t get the national press common to franchises in bigger or sexier markets like, say, Miami. In my experience, fans here spend a lot more time lamenting that fact than the actual team does. It never seems to affect the team, and as for Coach Pop? Anyone who has watched his end-of-quarter courtside television interviews knows that he regards a reporter’s microphone the way most of us regard a nurse with a hypodermic needle.
Seale had to work on a very tight deadline. He drove to Austin on Sunday to connect with the husband-wife team of Chrissy and Andrew Loehman, “a great digital tech/assistant”, who had agreed to work the last-minute weekend assignment, and to gather additional gear from Texas Grip in Austin. The team then drove to San Antonio to get here for practice, knowing the final product needed to be in the hands of New York editors that evening for a magazine that would go on sale Monday. That’s a tight deadline.
The other challenge was venue. The shoot had to take place at the Spurs practice facility rather than inside the more expansive AT&T Center, where there would have been more room to stage equipment, and more background choices. The Spurs closed our the Western Conference Finals long before Miami did the same in the East, so the national media already were in San Antonio, taking up whatever space was available at the practice facility.
The average fan might imagine Seale sauntering into Spurs practice with a camera slung around his neck and some more gear crammed into a heavy shoulder bag. That would be like shooting a full-length feature film with a handheld video camera. The preliminary sketch of how Seale and his team would set up for the shot appears to the left. Gearheads can scroll down through Seale’s blog to read his impressive inventory of equipment and cameras deployed.
Seale had hoped to set up an outdoors shot, but it had rained hard that morning. Then he noticed the parking garage across the open parking lot from the practice facility, a garage with unusually highly 14? clearances between the ground floor and the next parking level.
“It would make a great studio,” Seale wrote. “With the help of Spurs PR man Tom James and Facility supervisor Julio Rodriguez, we were able to set up in the garage and prep for the shoot.”
Seale the photographer is not the person who has the last word on the magazine cover. The cover design and actual image selection would be the work of SI Creative Director Chris Hercik. That’s a powerful job on a magazine masthead, and Hercik himself has to win the approval of SI’s other top editors. Anyone who has ever worked at a weekly news magazine know the agony of the top editor rejecting the staff’s collective work and ordering everyone to try something else — on deadline. Seale’s blog doesn’t suggest anything like that happened with the Spurs cover, but he did send in several very different looking images of the Big Three.
Seale and his team used apple boxes as podiums for the players and had members of the photo shoot team pose ahead of time to calibrate the lighting and positioning. When practice ended, the three players arrived, including Duncan’s children who took an immediate liking to Seale and were climbing on to his back as he tried to work. He only had the three Spurs stars for five minutes.
With the shoot done in matter of minutes, Seale hit the road for Houston, in a big enough hurry, he noted, that he didn’t have time “to stop at Buc-ee’s or the Luling City Market BBQ.” he transmitted photos to Hercik in New York, who crafted the cover in a matter of minutes.
The next day fans in San Antonio were holding the published magazine in their hands. Now the outcome of the series, tied at three games apiece, is in the hands of the Big Three and their team mates. Let’s hope the final score tonight has Sports Illustrated thinking about the Spurs again for next week’s cover.