by Kyle Stack / @KyleStack
No other form of communication can capture the emotional highs and lows of a championship season quite like photography. That’s the way in which Andrew Bernstein documented the Los Angeles Lakers‘ 2009-10 season in his new book, Journey To The Ring: Behind the Scenes with the 2010 NBA Champion Lakers.
As an NBA photographer since 1983, and as a senior official photographer for the League since 1986, Bernstein has shot his fair share of memorable NBA moments. Bernstein, who recently became Senior Director of NBA Photos, embedded himself within a Lakers team he’s covered for almost three decades to document one season with the squad. Lakers head coach Phil Jackson collaborated with Bernstein by writing the caption for every photo in the book.
I caught up with Bernstein at his book signing at the NBA Store this past Saturday to discuss the book. Then I spoke to a few Lakers players after their game Sunday against the New Jersey Nets at Prudential Center to get their thoughts on what the book meant to them. Here is what they had to say, followed by the conversation Bernstein and I had at the NBA Store.
Luke Walton: “It was a great season. He’s a great photographer, he takes great pictures. He’s with us all the time. He did an amazing job with that book — it’s on my coffee table at the house right now.”
Ron Artest: “It was good. First season with the Lakers and all that stuff was going on…it was cool. That book is great. He did a great job with the photos.”
Pau Gasol: “It was a fun book to see. Obviously Andrew has access that nobody else has access to. That gives him a privileged position. It was good to see everything put together in a book.”
Kobe Bryant: “The greatest sports photographer of all-time. Man, he captures the moments. A lot of people take pictures; he captures moments. [Claps his hands] Emotions that are snapshots in time that really encapsulate, whether it’s a series, a particular game…he really does an incredible job capturing that moment.”
SLAM: What year was it when you decided to attempt this project?
Andrew Bernstein: Good question. I’ve been trying to find a project to do from beginning to end of either a season or a Playoff run, and I’ve been able to do that throughout my career but not one concise project. They’ve always been in color, so I wanted to get back to my roots of black-and-white as a student. It led to approaching Phil about doing this book, which originally the idea was to document his final season as a head coach. Which I talked to him about after the 2008-09 season. It slowly became more of a team-oriented project, and of course he didn’t retire. He got excited about it, and he’s a big fan of black-and-white photography. It just led to this season-long project.
SLAM: Black-and-white photography was purely a desire for you to remember why you got into photography?
AB: Yeah, I’ve been looking for a long-term project to do in black-and-white that I could still do my day job in conjunction with that. The technology now is such that with a touch of a button you can go from color to black-and-white. Most of the book is in black-and-white until we go to the Playoffs — then we shot in color and it got converted [to black-and-white]. The only thing shot in film in the book were the 14 [player] portraits in the back, which were shot in 2 1/4 film.
SLAM: So, you use digital and film.
AB: Everything up until the portraits were shot digitally. Then the portraits were shot on film. It was the first time I’ve shot in film in five years. And so I pulled out the 2 1/4 camera, literally dusted it off and learned how to load the backs again. [Smiles] Then I had to find a lab that would process it, believe it or not, in L.A. The labs that I used were closed. I edited it from there, on a proof sheet, which is fun and sent it back in and they converted it to digital.
SLAM: When you went into games, and you’re obviously shooting stuff away from the action, behind-the-scenes, did you have a game plan? Or did you have to adapt to the moment?
AB: Yeah, I had a game plan. I wanted to show everything that goes on behind the scenes. The Lakers are a production. It’s literally like a Broadway show…it’s lit like a Broadway show, the court is basically a stage with the fans in darkness, the way it used to be at the [Great Western] Forum. They’ve tried to emulate that with their lighting [at Staples Center]. They’re the only team to wear gold at home, a color at home. They’re a very colorful team in a lot of ways. I wanted to extract the color out of it and just get back to the basic nitty gritty of black-and-white. Originally, quite honestly, I didn’t envision there being any basketball photos in the book. I wanted it to be all behind-the-scenes. Everything that happens in the training room, with the traveling, guys off the court and all that stuff. When Phil and I got deeply into it, he made it clear that he needed to see some action in the book. He needed to discuss strategy and matchups and how they adjusted, especially during the playoffs. So, I went back and I had to find photos I had shot that supported the things he wanted to say.
SLAM: Had you traveled with the Lakers in the past?
SLAM: Is there anything different you learned this time, about a team making it through a season?
AB: Well, Phil gave me more access than I usually get. I have pretty good access to begin with. There’s a real trust factor there with the players and me, especially with Kobe and Phil and the training staff. We know each other very well. I’ve been around for all 11 of Phil’s championships, so he’s comfortable with me. I also know that I have to kind of watch my Ps and Qs, and I need to know when to get in and when to get out. Phil and I have this sort of pantomime-like thing…he calls it a dance. He gives me a ‘look’ and I know that’s my cue to get out. [Laughs] But I don’t think I learned anything different. I think I just experienced more about what the players go through on a daily basis. It’s eight months of grueling travel and stress with really no time off. They might get a day here or there off, but I don’t consider a day on the road in which they’re not playing a day off — it’s just a travel day.
SLAM: I remember reading one story where the player’s training room was the area in which you had the least amount of access.
AB: These guys have their private inner sanctum of the inner sanctum. A locker room is their inner sanctum, but of course the media has access to that. Then they have the training room, which the media doesn’t have access to. And then they have the player’s lounge, which nobody has access to. I was able to get myself in there once or twice. The training room I had good access to, because their trainer Gary Vitti and I have been good friends for 20-something years. They know I’m not going to shoot anybody in an uncompromising position. I’m also not going to reveal any private training secrets, which every team and every player have. I’m conscious of that.
SLAM: Can you recall any specific moments when a player or a coach gave you that ‘look’ that meant it wasn’t the appropriate time for a photo?
AB: Yes, but not that politely. [Laughs] I can’t recall one specifically from last season. There have been times in the past where Phil has come in and questioned why I was where I was. [Laughs] But last season, I was very careful. Phil and I have an understanding…for example, on the plane he’s got a requirement that I can only shoot on the plane when the plane is not moving. So, if it starts taxing I have to stop shooting. And when we land, I can only shoot between when they stop at the gate and when they get off the plane. I think it retains that privacy element. And I won’t shoot the guys playing cards, or any of that stuff. I can’t tell you there was a moment where I was kicked out.
SLAM: And NBA Entertainment was following the Lakers last season for a documentary which aired on ESPN. Was it a challenge working with NBAE for the same type of access?
AB: No, not at all. I’m eternally thankful to them. Andy Compton was the producer on that, and [VP of Original Programming] Dion Cocoros was amazing on that. A lot of the stuff that’s in my book came from me piggy-backing on their shoes. So, with Ron Artest on the beach. That was a shoot they did that I went along on. I probably couldn’t have arranged that on my own. I’m thankful to them. We work hand-in-hand — same company. Most of the time when there’s a video shoot, there’s a photographer attached to it. There were certain moments, for example Phil cooking Thanksgiving dinner at his house, which was a private moment he invited me to. But I was very lucky to be able to have them do that project so that I could get some good material for my book.
SLAM: Phil articulates situations differently from any coach in any other sport. He seems like he would have a different level of appreciation for photography as an art form. What was the communication like with Phil on this project?
AB: Phil is one of the most interesting people I’ve met in my life. He’s an incredibly intelligent guy, a man of few words. But he chooses them wisely and he’s a very cerebral guy. I’ve completely bought into the whole Zen philosophy, going with the flow and all that stuff. I think since I’ve met him I’ve become a lot calmer. [Laughs] I see where he’s coming from on that. Things happen for a reason, and you have to allow things to happen naturally. That extends into the sports world, as well. I find him fascinating and being around him, hearing the things he talks about. Even with the team, the amount of respect he shows his players but yet he has to drive them, motivate them and coddle them, in a way. It’s very impressive.
SLAM: Who did you form a stronger bond with than anyone else during this project?
AB: [Pauses] Well, I would say above all, Phil. Part of your last question was about his appreciation for photography. It’s an interesting story…when Phil was playing for the Knicks in 1970, he was injured. The team photographer for the Knicks, who’s still their photographer, George Kalinski, gave Phil a camera because Phil was interested in photography. George gave it to Phil to keep him busy. And Phil was shooting all kinds of stuff — on the bench, in the training room, locker room and stuff. He took some really great pictures. At the end of the season they won the championship, George and Phil produced a black-and-white book — mostly George’s photography but Phil has a handful of pictures in it — called Take It All. It’s really fascinating. Phil has this story about walking up and down Madison Avenue with this manuscript of photos, trying to sell it. Somebody bought it. Anyway, so I knew about that and Phil and I had talked about that. He talks about having the negatives somewhere in a closet in Montana or wherever. And I would love to seem them sometime. It became a full-circle situation where 40 years later he’s with another team photographer and has won 10 championships as a coach and had another opportunity to work on a black-and-white project. That was another hook for me to get him involved, was 40 years later, full-circle…Phil’s all about that. It all worked out.
SLAM: How has team access changed since 1983?
AB: I don’t remember having to worry about it in the early days. Pat Riley was very careful about who was given access to the inner sanctum. I was always accepted as part of the team. But I wandered in and out and did my thing. There weren’t those layers of security that there are now. But Phil understands. He might, as we say in the Yiddish expression, kvetch about people in his locker room, but he understands the value of it, too. This book is a good example of that.
SLAM: Did your mood start to reflect that of the team during this project?
AB: Well, you know, it’s tough to be impartial when you’re around a team every day for years and years and years. I can’t outwardly root for them, but I am very fond of the team and a lot of the players. And of course, Kobe, I’ve known him since he was 17 years old. He’s in his 15th year in the League now. What he’s become as a man and an important athlete, and Phil, of course. I was rooting for them. I think the publisher had made a commitment to publish this win or lose, but it certainly made it that much better that they actually won the championship. Otherwise, it would have been Journey Almost To The Ring. [Laughs]
SLAM: What do you hope people get out of this book?
AB: I hope people can look at it and see something new, something different in my approach, in terms of the black-and-white photographs. Which is not done that often anymore. And also see something new in what I was trying to show behind the scenes. The rigors of the season, what the players have to go through. There’s a photo of Kobe midway through the season sitting in a New York locker room with his feet being iced and his finger getting iced. It’s a long, arduous, heroic journey, it really is. I have so much admiration for these guys. I travel with them, and I’m exhausted. I’m sitting there. I’m not playing the game. It’s amazing to me. I hope the fans really see this as a different kind of photo book. Also, what made this book very special to me was it was a true collaboration with Phil. My vision photographically, his vision in terms of the words he wrote and us melding those together to come up with one concise vision of the journey throughout the season.