John Huet, one of the most acclaimed photo-graphers of our age, is best-known for his images of athletes such as Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps, Allen Iverson, and for work he has done with brands such as Nike, Bank of America, TaylorMade, and Oakley – to name but a few.
Photography has been evolving since the time it was invented.
Lürzer’s Archive has featured his work on numerous occasions, and there are in fact a total of 78 print campaigns that have graced the pages of the magazine since the mid-1990s. Michael Weinzettl recently got a chance to chat to the great man about his amazing work and career.
Hi John, Archive has been featuring campaigns shot by you for more than 23 years. What does it take to become the pre-eminent sports photographer of your generation?
Wow, that’s quite a compliment. Thank you.
There are two things that come to mind for me in response. The first is just straight-up hard work. That’s something which is ingrained in me and something that I’ve always brought to my photography. Secondly, I would say, the way that I see things and how I interpret what’s in front of me. I look for the thing that will illuminate a particular sport and give the viewer a glimpse of something they didn’t expect to see, or maybe something they didn’t even realize was there. I think there’s a difference between capturing what’s going on in front of you and observing your subject, and communicating your interpretation photographically, which is what I try to do.
How did you start out?
I would say that my initial start was more accidental than it was deliberate. I took photography as an elective in high school. I wasn’t planning on going to college, and I had a lot of room in my schedule for electives during my senior year, so I took every art class that was offered – photography, drawing, painting, etc. They were basically easy grades, which had a certain appeal. I ended up really liking photography, so much so that I would do the homework assignments for all of the football players in the class. I was doing my assignments and the assignments for three-quarters of the rest of the class, so I had a lot of practice. Around that same time, my grandfather, whom I idolized, took up photography, and we spent a lot of time talking about it. Those conversations were meaningful experiences that have stayed with me.
I started shooting for the yearbook, and that involved following the photographer who had been hired to work on the yearbook and shooting whatever he wasn’t shooting. At some point, I realized that this guy was doing something that he liked, and he was making what seemed like a decent living. That’s when I decided that maybe photography was something to consider as a career, but at that time I obviously had a very limited sense of what that meant. After a few visits to see my brothers, who were in college and introduced me to the robust college party scene, I thought college seemed like a pretty good idea after all, so I enrolled in a two-year photography program in Ft. Lauderdale.
During college, I went to Florence as part of a six-month study in Europe. It was the first time that I could focus entirely on photography without any of the distractions of daily college campus life. While I was there, I realized that I was applying everything I had learned up to that point, and I was starting to really think about my assignments and what I was going to photograph the next day. I hadn’t really done that before. When I was in the darkroom one night, I was watching a print come up in the developer, and I had that experience of recognizing that what I was seeing on paper was exactly what I had envisioned when I was taking the photograph. That’s the point when I realized that photography was more than just a way to make a living and, as clichéd as it may sound, that’s when I knew that it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
What is your background? Where do you come from originally?
I grew up in Tarentum, Pennsylvania. It’s a small steel town about 20 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. My dad was in real estate, my mom was a substitute teacher. I grew up with three brothers, two older and one younger, so between the four of us, there was always something going on at our house. I went to Catholic school until 8th grade and then I went to public school.
When did you get started with professional photography?
After college, I took a year off and traveled around, did some couch-surfing, tended bar, etc. I went to New York to see about assisting. Coming from Miami, where the photo studios were polished and pristine, I wasn’t really feeling the five-floor walk-ups where I needed to step over the people passed out on the stairs to make my way up to the studio. I drove up to Boston to visit some friends from college. They had their own studio and said they’d hire me as an assistant when they could. I liked the city and decided to stay. I gave myself a two-year timeline to figure things out. I assisted off and on for about four years, including a year full-time with Al Fisher, who was a well-established photographer in Boston at that time. I learned a lot about the art of photography from Al. He would show me original prints from photographers like Irving Penn. I thought that was pretty incredible. I also learned a lot about the business of photography from him. Al was old-school. Assistants were there to assist and to learn. We weren’t there for our own entertainment. I had a lot of respect for him. When I left my job there, I opened my own studio and things took off from there.
Have you been interested in sports all your life? Have you yourself been active in sports/athletics?
Growing up in a family of four boys, sports was a big part of everything that we did, so much so that my older brothers both work in live sports television, one as a producer/director and the other as a cameraman. I loved playing all sports, from basketball to swimming to track and field. I was a four-year varsity letterman in track and field. I competed in hurdles, as well as all of the field events and most of the sprinting events, but my specialty was high jumping. I did love football, but I wasn’t allowed to play because my mother thought that I was too small. Of course, we watched a lot of sports. We lived outside of Pittsburgh in the 70s when the Steelers won four Super Bowl titles in six years. It was the era of the Steelers dynasty, and that definitely shaped my interest in sports in some ways.
How did you first connect with Nike, just one of the many clients you have done work for that went on to become world-famous?
I got a phone call on a Friday afternoon at lunch. Sent out the portfolio for Saturday delivery. Had a creative call with Susan Hoffman from Wieden+Kennedy during her kid’s birthday party on Saturday afternoon and was on a plane to Tampa, Florida on Monday to shoot Andre Agassi. We shot all day Tuesday, flew back on Wednesday, sent the film to the lab on Thursday, shipped it on Friday for Monday morning delivery to Susan. I got a second call on Tuesday and was on a plane to Spain on Thursday. That’s how I got my start with Nike and Wieden+Kennedy, and it’s pretty much been like that ever since.
What were some of your influences?
Growing up, I was heavily influenced by the National Geographic and Life magazines that my parents had in the attic. I would spend hours looking at them. I was also influenced by my interest in art. I was really taken by the work of a lot of the famous painters and spent a lot of time looking at their work in art books. At that time, I didn’t really have an interest in being a photographer. I was just captivated by all of the fantastic work that I saw.
Is there a tradition of American sports photography you were aware of when you were young?
My parents had a subscription to Sports Illustrated starting in the early 60s, so I was aware of the excellent photography by Walter Iooss Jr., Neil Leifer, and Heinz Kluetmeier early in my life. I loved the way they showed sports, the way they made you feel like you were right in the middle of the action rather than just seeing it from the sidelines. For anyone interested in seeing an incredible collection of sports photography, and in reading the stories of the photographers who have created some of the most iconic sports images of our time, I highly recommend the book Who Shot Sports by the indomitable Gail Buckland, which accompanies the Who Shot Sports exhibition that Gail curated. I can’t say enough good things about it really.
In addition to the work of the SI photographers, I was also familiar with the stop-motion photography of Harold Edgerton, and after seeing Irving Penn’s platinum prints for the first time, I felt like my world expanded to include an entirely new set of influences who weren’t sports photographers or photojournalists.
In Germany, there is, of course, the towering and problematic figure of Leni Riefenstahl, who also influenced several American photographers such as the late Herb Ritts or Robert Mapplethorpe. Did Riefenstahl’s work have any effect on your aesthetics?
Yes, directly and indirectly. I’ve always been a big fan of the work of Herb Ritts and Robert Mapplethorpe, so indirectly I was influenced by her influence on them. More directly, when I was commissioned to shoot the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, a very big part of that commission was to produce the images for The Fire Within, the official commemorative book for the 2002 Games. I had orchestrated a team of 11 other photographers who were going to be contributing to the book. Logistically, it was a lot to put together, but what I wanted to do with the Salt Lake Olympics was to tell the story and capture sports in a different way, to bring out the beauty of the sport.
I started to look closely at Olympia, and I used the book as a blueprint for the type of images that I thought we should produce in Salt Lake. Part of what captured my attention in Leni’s work was the access that she had to the athletes while they were training and during the Games themselves. Of course, in 1936 the Olympics weren’t the spectacle that they are today, and the fact that her entire project was commissioned and financed by the Nazis probably had something to do with the access that she was granted. I wanted that kind of access in Salt Lake, where the objective had always been to create images that were more artistic and less journalistic, and to produce a book that presented the Olympics in a different light. Leni’s work influenced me one hundred per cent in that sense.
But more than that, what I took away from Olympia was that Leni basically invented sports photography. She invented all of it. Her work wasn’t just about capturing a person crossing the finish line – it was about capturing the entire experience. She captured the story of competition, and that’s what makes sports photography interesting to me. She was the first one to shoot from what essentially became the modern-day blimp. She would dig holes so that she could shoot from lower angles. She was the first to use a catapult camera so that she could be beside the runners during competition. She used groundbreaking techniques and photographic styles to shoot her images. To me, Leni’s true legacy was that she was a visual storyteller, and she was way ahead of her time. A woman director and photographer shooting sports in the 30s? Of course her work influenced me.
What is some of your work that you are proudest of?
Soul of the Game, many of the Nike campaigns I’ve worked on, a lot of the work I’ve done for ESPN, specifically the story on Bill May, the male synchronized swimmer who is just a fascinating human being, the spring training shoots I’ve done with the Dodgers, the Angels and the Tigers, shooting the Masters for Golf Digest, the nine times I’ve photographed the Olympics and the recent cover shoot I did with Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky for National Geographic.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievements?
To have been the photographer on many seminal campaigns that helped define the direction of advertising for the sports/athletic industry. You have to remember that, in my early career, the athletic/fitness/sportswear industry was relatively small. There were only a few key brands, and it was nothing like the multibillion-dollar industry that it is today.
It makes me feel good to see that many of the assistants I mentored have gone on to build their own thriving careers.
And I’d have to say that riding this wave for more than 30 years by establishing great relationships with amazing clients from all over the world is a pretty great achievement as well.
Have you had any collaborations with art directors or creative directors that you look back on particularly fondly?
That’s a really tough question to answer. I’ve had so many experiences working with great people, and each of them has been unique. Of course, the creatives who helped launch my career in Boston come to mind right away: John Doyle, Brian Fandetti, Margaret McGovern, Amy Watt, Mark Kent, and Dick Davis. People like John Vitro, whom I worked with on some of the first campaigns that his agency did for asics. The fact that I’m still shooting for his agency 25 years later means a lot to me. I was really fond of Claude Shade, whom I worked with when he was at GS&P; David Fox and the Nike job we did together when he was at W+K; the work I did with Warren Eakins for Reebok; the shoots I’ve done with many of the Photo Editors at ESPN, past and present, including Nik Kleinberg, Karen Frank, Jim Surber, Nick Galac, and Kristine LaManna; Champion Europe with Piero Bagolini; Nike and Powerade with Alvaro Sotomayor; the work I’ve done for TaylorMade with Dave Huerta and Travis Graham; the great opportunities that I was given by Heidi Volpe when she was at Muscle & Fitness; Steve Whittier and Amy Kitt, who were at Factory Design Labs at the time; the work I’ve done with Libby Delana at Mechanica; Conan Wang, whom I had the pleasure of working with many times when he was in China; Jayanta Jenkins when he was at W+K; Steve Pratt and Alyssa Fishman at Hill Holliday; Robert Nakata and, of course, John Jay. John and I worked together on the East vs. West campaign for Nike right after he arrived at W+K in Portland. We went on to collaborate on my book, Soul of the Game, which was a great experience. I could go on, but I’m sure there’s a limit on space here.
Has photography changed in any significant way since you first started?
Yep, that’s one of the great things about photography – it’s been evolving since the time it was invented, and I think some of the most significant advances have happened in the thirty-plus years that I’ve been working as a commercial photographer. When I started, I was working with large, medium and 35mm format cameras, and everything was shot on film. We took a Polaroid so that we could see what we were capturing. We used croppers and showed the Polaroid to the client so they could see what things were going to look like. We went through a period where we were using Polaroid as our end product, and we went through that cross-processing phase too. Everything had to be sent to the lab to be processed. Normal turnaround time was three days. Three days to see what you shot. Film would come back, and my assistants would cut it and sleeve it. We had boxes and boxes and boxes of film and contact sheets. You had to have a studio just to store all of your film. Then came Photoshop and digital scanning of the film. Initially, Photoshop looked like it might have been a really bad idea. Then more toys were created for us to use, including not-so-great digital cameras. Photoshop, and the way that it was used, got better. Slowly the digital cameras got faster, and they started making better lenses, and then the cameras got even faster with larger file sizes and even better lenses. Then came the phones with incredible camera technology. We can obviously capture things now with digital technology that we would’ve never been able to shoot 30 years ago. The technology has made things faster and easier for the photographer in many ways, but it doesn’t make you a better photographer. You can hack an image together in Photoshop or retouch a mediocre image ad nauseam but, at the end of the day, the best photographs are still made by the eye of the person behind the camera.
I guess you started out with analog photography, of which you can hardly see a trace nowadays in ad photography. Just about everything gets post-produced and digitally enhanced. What is your take on digital vs. analog? Do you still shoot photos the “old-fashioned” way, or is it all digital for you now too?
In the advertising industry, everyone is accustomed to seeing images as they’re being shot. It creates a level of comfort on set that has, in some ways, replaced the trust variable of the equation. We live in a world of immediacy. Everything is available on demand anytime, so the idea of an ad client waiting for film to be processed is probably not one that’s going to be revived anytime soon.
When it comes to shooting for yourself, I think the big debate between digital and analog comes down to you as a photographer, how you see, and what you like. There are still specific cameras and lenses that can only be used with film, and you can only achieve a certain look by using that camera. But digital has its advantages, especially when you’re shooting sports. Sony makes a camera that shoots twenty-one frames per second with incredible autofocus, so your chances of getting a usable image are much greater with a camera like that.
I shoot both digital and film, but you have to remember that those are simply tools to use to communicate what/how I see. They don’t replace my visual aesthetic.
What about the way you work for advertising? Has the industry changed much from your perspective?
I think that a lot of things about the industry have changed, and most of that change really stems from technology. Consider, if you will, that when I started, the internet didn’t exist. Did not exist. Let that soak in for a minute. Creatives outside of your general region found out about you from an awards show, a magazine like “Archive”, by word of mouth, in a face-to-face meeting, a sourcebook in which you advertised or via a promo mailing that you sent. There were far fewer photographers and only a handful of photo agents. Art production was called art buying, and it was a relatively new thing. If an art director was interested in working with you, you spoke directly, one-on-one. You didn’t triple bid because the creative chose the person they wanted to work with, and there wasn’t anyone requesting that multiple photographers do estimates for the same job. You submitted an estimate, you made necessary revisions, the job got approved, and you shot it. Everything was done by phone or in meetings. There was no caller ID, agencies didn’t have voicemail, and when the phone rang, people answered it. Social media, blogs, websites, defining yourself as a brand and creating a brand identity? Not a thing. Didn’t exist.
I’ve seen a lot of changes in the agency/client relationship. Clients are much more involved with every step of the process now. I had a creative call recently where the client was directing the call. That was something I hadn’t experienced before. And I think there’s an overall expectation that things should happen faster now because they can.
Another thing that’s changed is the request for shooting stills and video on the same set. I started directing about 10 years after I opened my studio, so I’ve been shooting video for quite awhile. Sometimes I’m asked to shoot stills on set with another director, and other times I’m doing the directing and shooting the stills. It can be a pretty seamless process really, and I like the combination of the two mediums.
I’m amazed at the changes that we’ve seen in every aspect of our lives because of technology. There are plusses and minuses across the board, but when I tally up all of the things that have changed, the one thing that has remained consistent on every project that I’ve done is the human relationships that are created. That, and the opportunity to make great images, are what it’s been about for me all along, and that’s as true today as it was the day I opened my studio.
Has it become more difficult to do good work for ad clients or is it easier today, now that you have such a huge reputation for your photography and can probably do pretty much as you like?
I don’t think it’s become more difficult for me to do good work for ad clients. I work on a wide range of projects with a wide range of budgets, and I enjoy that. One of the things that happens when you’ve been doing this for as long as I have, and you’ve worked on a lot of visible campaigns, is that people have this image of who you are, and they draw conclusions about your interest in their project based on the work they know that you’ve done and the image they have of you in their minds. That’s always a little odd to me. I just like to work with good people on interesting projects. The budget and the visibility of the client are really secondary to me.
Is there any individual in sports or the arts, or even advertising, that you particularly admire?
More than any individual, I think I admire a particular kind of person. I have a lot of respect for the people who deliver one hundred per cent, the people who, at the end of the day, have given their all and left everything on the field. That can be a visible professional athlete, artist, celebrity or politician (though that’s pretty rare these days), but it can also be an everyday, ordinary person who is doing his/her best to move through some unexpected obstacles. I directed a video recently, and one of the subjects was an accomplished recreational athlete and a ski instructor who was in a brutal accident that crushed both of his legs from the knees down. In the video, he talks about his experience from the time of the accident through his hospitalization and his very long recovery. The one thing that he says got him through all of it was his will to recover. He was committed to doing the work, and regardless of the physical and emotional pain, he showed up every single day. I see that quality in military personnel, law enforcement, and teachers with whom I’ve worked. I see it in the athletes who compete at the Special Olympics, and in the kids with Down syndrome who take classes at the Boston Ballet. I see it in Olympic athletes. I saw it in all of the first responders that I photographed after the Boston Marathon bombing. It’s that quality of real dedication that I see in many people that I admire more than admiring any particular individual.
Any photographer – dead or alive – that you would love to work with?
Maybe not so much that I would want to work with, but I think if I could put together a dinner party, the guest list would be comprised of: Irving Penn, Henri Cartier Bresson, Harry Benson, Leni Riefenstahl, Herb Ritts, Walter Iooss Jr., W. Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange, David Burnett, Raymond Meeks, and Marcus Smith.
And the first question would be: “What is the one photo you most regret not taking?” Knowing photographers as I do, that would get the conversation started and keep it going well into the evening. I would do a dinner party every week with different guests. No matter who was sitting at the table, I know that, as photographers, we would always have something new and inspiring to talk about.
What advice would you give a young photographer starting out today?
Don’t do it for the money. Do it for the love of your craft and take pride in what you do. You’ve chosen a career that gives you the opportunity to create images that can stand the test of time, so do that. Don’t get comfortable. Don’t give in to trends. Don’t let the social media beast affect how you see or what you shoot. Don’t take the easy way out. Always evolve. Make meaningful images.
What – to you – is a brilliant photograph?
The one that evokes an emotional response and that you never want to stop looking at.