Proud as we are of the way SLAM reads, we know the biggest reason we’ve lasted 20 years is how the mag looks. To celebrate some of our most memorable photo shoots we spoke to the great photographers who made them happen.
by Peter Walsh
SLAM has been bringing the stories of players to the forefront for two decades, but rarely do we get to hear from the people behind the lens who provide the iconic shots that will live on long after the player’s career is over. Between the phone calls, e-mails, scheduling, cancellations, and moody subjects, the amount of work it takes to get the perfect shot is one of the toughest aspects of bringing you the best in basketball month after month, and year after year.
Much like SLAM changed the game with its coverage of all things basketball, Pier Nicola D’Amico changed the photography game with his experimentation with digital augmentation that is now used by every photographer working today. Known for breaking down barriers ourselves, it was only a matter of time before SLAM and D’Amico joined forces. Nic’s clean shots and incredible post-production work has provided SLAM with some of its most unique and aesthetically pleasing shots.
For more of Nic’s work, check out www.damicostudios.com.
On his approach when shooting athletes…
It became a different psychology when we started shooting digital. It allowed the players to get involved in the creation of their own iconography. A lot of the time, the thing that I try to do is put myself in the shoes of the subject. Say it’s a media day and you’re Shaquille O’Neal, you have to go to 10 photo shoots—it’s a grind and a commitment. It’s also a contractual obligation that these guys have to do. What I try to do is create an environment on the set that it’s all about them.
Digital capture changed everything we did—it allowed the players to get involved in the way they are shot. Shaq would always say, “You never shoot me smiling, it’s always about looking hard!”
I immediately picked up on that and had some fun being jovial. Just the idea that they can partake in the way they are depicted changed the way these shoots went for me as an artist capturing another artist–whether it’s an athlete or a musician. It created more of a collaborative effort between the subject and I in interpreting them, shooting them, picking the angle, the background and then compositing it together. We started doing a lot of composites for SLAM and creating a cool fantasy world where the guys would be shot. That was the approach and it led to a bunch of assignments from SLAM.
I try to bring a very specific all-focus-on-the-athlete approach. The professional American athlete is a distracted animal [laughs]. If they get on set and if their phone is close by, someone is going to be hitting them up. A lot of times shoots will have pauses, whether it’s because you’re having technological problems or people are looking at files and discussing the photos. Think about what it’s like to be on set waiting while all that stuff is happening. My whole focus was to bring 100 percent of the attention to the athlete and have the technology so buttoned up that they feed on that and think, “Wow, this guy’s a pro. He’s trying to make me look good, I’ll give that effort.”
On the creative process…
What I try to tell people is, cut loose of what you think you should be doing and let it flow. Let it be about not trying too hard and don’t worry about making mistakes. Mistakes are such an important piece of creativity because there’s no inspirational moment, there’s no “a-ha” moment in art—you grind. It’s like shooting a thousand shots to eventually stroke that three-pointer. You gotta take a lot of pictures and that happy accident becomes, ‘Whoa that’s really cool,’ and you push into that and try going further.
I have to think that it’s similar in sports. In a lot of ways, you hear interviews with players, and they say, “Oh, I didn’t even think of that, it just happened.” When Jordan did that insane right-hand, left-hand layup, I doubt he was ever thinking that way, he was in the flow of the game. That’s what brilliant about basketball; it has that improvisational component to it. When Kobe scored 81 points, you could just see that he was in the flow and in the zone and couldn’t miss a shot. You see that Dr. J one where scoops a layup from behind the backboard and you think, “How the fuck did he do that?!” And there’s no way that that happens in a structured way—it’s all flow.
On shooting LeBron for SLAM 93…
When he first came into the League there was all that chatter about being King James and Nike had done a throne shot with him. He was familiar with that concept and it was really about if the props felt right. The crown that fit him was not the crown I actually ended up using. We ended up re-shooting the crown and compositing it on his head, but the robe and the sword were live.
He was into it, it was fun, and the key thing was that you could see it on the screen. I can’t emphasize enough how digital has changed how these shoots go because it allows the player to get involved in the fun. It’s not like, ‘You’re the subject matter, you’re the model, stand here, look here, put your hands in your pockets, fold your arms.’ It’s more them being involved in that idea.
That whole pose was him trying different things like, ‘Let me put the sword across my chest like this. Take my picture.’ He walked over to the screen and said that looks cool. In the psychological sense, he’s committed and that makes everything easier.
The real rush for a lot of photographers is the capture point, the rush of getting a shot and overcoming problems. It’s about the challenge of getting a LeBron James to stay for a whole shoot; that’s my three-point shot.
On shooting Shaq and Dwyane Wade for SLAM 94…
One of the most fun things [star athletes] get to do is to be part of the creation of their superhero identity in a sense. When we did Shaq and Dwyane Wade ripping off their jerseys for the Flash and Superman shoot, they loved that, it was so much fun for them. They were so into that and it was great from a magazine perspective because they fed that idea to them and we were able to visualize that and show them how that was going to come off.
We showed up with the tee-shirts and all this stuff and no one thought to think whether their warm ups were pullovers or breakaways [laughs]. We got there and they were pullovers, so I had the guys basically take their t-shirts and pull them apart and in the studio I shot a model with a chest and the jerseys pulled open and we had to reconstruct the entire torso of Dwyane and Shaq to make that work. That was all fake, but they totally got a kick out of it.
I thought the stuff I did with Shaq and Dwyane was some of the best stuff that I did for SLAM. There are a lot of outtakes from that shoot that are really cool. I shot them pretending to do karate and Dwyane laughing about it next to Shaq. Then there’s the technological accomplishment that came with them looking like they were ripping off their jersey’s which was a huge rush.
On shooting Allen Iverson for SLAM 96…
They wanted to get his crossover for the cover, so I turned the monitor around and allowed him to see the captures coming in so that he could time it just right. The crossover was caught at the right time—pretty much when he started to palm it, which he got away with for years. That was kind of interesting because it was before a game and you only get ‘X’ amount of minutes with a guy. The writer went out to get a cup of coffee and Allen showed up at the shoot unannounced and early, stayed for about five minutes and by the time the writer came back he was gone. We got the crossover cover, the inside spread and the table of contents in a matter of six minutes. He was very cool.
I was surprised at how thin he was. It surprises me sometimes when you meet the guys, they’re not as big as they come off in the game but for a lot of players, that lightness and small bones gets them off the ground faster. If you look at Allen Iverson’s ankles, they’re like my wrist. I couldn’t believe he was that skinny and playing in the League.
On shooting Greg Oden for SLAM 99…
It’s always sad to see a player not to be able to fulfill their potential because of their physical problems. He is a big boy. Shaq’s big, but Greg is as tall and really, really long. You think about a guy like that who’s about 300 pounds and the wear and tear on those joints, it’s intense. He did some slams for us that were thunderous, I thought the rim was going to break. It reminded me of Darryl Dawkins, he had that kind of power in his slams that I thought was unbelievable. Really nice kid, a gentle giant and I wished him the best of luck after the shoot.
We were at the McDonald’s All-American scrimmage and he was just dominating. None of the other players were able to keep up with him, he was undoubtedly going to be the No. 1 pick. Seeing him afterwards, it’s hard. You root for players and you want them to do well, but they’re only human. I think of Andrew Toney, aka the Boston Strangler. He had the fastest first step in the League and the sweetest jump shot and he broke down whole teams with his first step, he was unbelievable. The team botched it on his injury. He was complaining about his feet and they misdiagnosed it and he lost his career because of it. You worry about that. Do these guys really need an 82-game season?
On shooting Ben Wallace for SLAM 103…
That was a very casual shoot. It was at his house after he had just moved to Chicago—he just got traded, so they had the new uniform for him. I knocked on his door—rarely is it that I roll up on someone’s house to shoot—his kids were there and we went out and shot in the garage. He pulled out some sports cars and we set up the shoot there. The guys are always excited about showing off their cars.
It was very casual, very low-key dude, very down to earth. No entourage, no groups of people, it was just him, my two assistants, no one from SLAM, and that was it. He wasn’t caught up in his own image or anything like that.
On shooting Yao Ming…
Yao Ming was funny because the Chinese government interrupted our shoot. We were waiting for him to come out—he was only going to give us a few minutes—he was in a terrible mood and there was nothing I could do to change that. Just before we were about to shoot these suits showed up and his handlers said, “These are the people form the Chinese Olympic Committee, he has to do an interview online.”
So they stopped our shoot, kicked us off the set, did this promo for a few minutes, then released him back to our set and that was just crazy. In the end, that was really fun. We went around and shot Houston at night and we merged him into the Houston skyline and made him look like Godzilla. He looked like he was as tall as any of the buildings and the river was running through his shoes and all the lights are matching and the perspective was right and it looked really cool. I liked the way that one came out a lot.
On the comfort level players have when shooting for SLAM…
I’ve done shoots with brands for players, and those are always more high-pressure because they have their agents there, the brand guys are there, and they’re usually trying to promote a shoe or a beverage tie-in or an apparel tie-in. Those shoots tend to be a little more structured and less loose. If I’m the guy shooting I always try to keep it light.
When they come for an editorial shoot, they know that they can goof around more and it’s just SLAM in their mind, it’s basically an afterthought shoot after practice. They’ll meet a photo editor that they know and oftentimes the photo editor is familiar with the players. One time Shaq picked up one of the assistant photo editors and flipped her up and around in the air and it was just fun. The guys are a little less guarded, I think, because there’s no commercial commitment to it.
It’s the same thing for artists, photographers, designers and writers. Editorial is a place for freedom, it’s a place for expression and place to stretch and do things a little outside the box because there’s less pressure on it even though publishing is probably at it’s most high pressure right now. But, I think the guys are definitely looser during SLAM shoots.
It makes it more fun and worth it. I probably traveled across the country carrying a bunch of equipment, working with assistants that I don’t know. I’m sleeping in bad hotels, eating bad food—it’s not luxurious in any way. I usually sit in a dusty part of the stadium waiting for the player to finish practice, so there’s that sacrifice but the payoff is worth it.
On the impact SLAM has had on his career…
It pushed me out from being an obscure commercial photographer to being more of an editorial presence, and all the sports magazines started noticing. The cool thing about SLAM was it allowed me to shoot on court, so I was able to bring the speed action and the frozen action shot but also do the portrait and composite it to a reality. In that sense it really honed my sense to shooting, but it also freed me up to be a lot more expressive and fun. A lot of that was Melissa Brennan’s (SLAM’s Creative Director) support. I would shoot an athlete and shoot a whole bunch of plates and she’d say, “Yeah that’s cool, let’s do this!”
SLAM was a big part of the evolution of sports photography, which classically had always been the guys either in front of the lockers or an action shot. SLAM created the ability for them to expand the idea of the portrayal of an athlete and let that be more of an editorialized depiction that had more fun. SLAM allowed the players to join in on the creative process which was a big success. In that sense it really changed the tone of how to go about shooting superstar athletes and how that can happen successfully in an editorial format without pissing off sponsors or pissing off teams or team owners or agents or anything like that. Keep it safe, keep it PG, keep it fun, keep it expressive and let the guys have fun. It seemed like that was the formula that worked so great for SLAM.
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