Jeff Pearlman

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Ronald Modra

#208
He was jerked around by David Justice and Barry Bonds, embraced by Brooks & Dunn and Martina McBride and a chronicler of some of the greatest sporting events in modern history. A legendary Sports Illustrated photographer explains the craft. POSTED May 26, 2015

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Back when I used to work for Sports Illustrated, a special bond existed between the magazine’s writers and photographers.

One, because we traveled together, ate together, worked together. It was a very collaborative process. If you were writing, say, an Alfonso Soriano piece, you’d make sure the shooter knew exactly what you were thinking, where you were headed.

Two, because we needed each other.

Three, because we knew how special this thing was. At the time, working for SI felt like being a part of the Dream Team. You were surrounded by extraordinarily talented people, facing extremely high expectations, writing and photographing for an enormous audience in the shadow of many of the medium’s legends.

It was at this point in my life when I often found myself alongside Ronald Modra.

Ron spent 23 years at the magazine, shooting 70 covers and countless images you’d almost certainly recognize. His ability to capture moments oozed from the pages; his relationships with players jumped from his portraits. For me, though, Ron was simply a really cool, really humble guy whose professionalism and decency served as examples how to go about this business the right way.

Anyhow, not only is Ron the 208th Quaz, he’s also the author of a new book, A Baseball Life, that showcases the best images from a spectacular career. One can visit Ron at his website here, or on Facebook and Twitter. Here, he recalls David Justice-Halle Berry weirdness, Barry Bonds churlishness and what it was like working for SI in its glory era.

Ron Modra, step up. You’re the new Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Ron, so I’ve known you for many years, have worked with you many times. It’s great having you here. Opening question—give me your biggest someone-treated-me-like-a-jerk photography story from your career. Oh, and it can’t include Barry Bonds.

RONALD MODRA: That’s easy—David Justice. Back in 1995 I was assigned to do a story about Justice, who was playing for the Atlanta Braves. I thought it was going to be a quick feature that would take a couple of days, but Justice was running me around in circles so the assignment stretched out over several weeks. I was in constant contact with both him and his agent and getting the total runaround. We can do it tomorrow, we can’t do it tomorrow … all the action and the photographs at the stadium pretty much took care of themselves but the managing editor said the most important picture was of Justice and his then-wife, Halle Berry. The magazine also wanted a picture of Justice with his mom. He finally agreed to do that picture one day after a game and when I caught up the two of them, his mom knew nothing about the shoot. He didn’t bother to tell her so she had no time to get her hair done (as she said) or wear something nice (as she said to her son).

The magazine continued to delay the story so we could try to get a shot of Justice and Halle. I followed the team to Pittsburgh where I met with Justice and suggested (with approval from SI) that he and I fly together—on a Lear jet—on the off day to the location where Halle was filming the Flintstones movie. The magazine offered to put the two of them up in any hotel they chose, all expenses paid. He’d get to see his wife and I’d get my picture. Justice’s answer? “I don’t want to be doing that shit on my day off.”

A week or so later we were back in Atlanta. After a lot of back and forth with his agent, we finally set up a shoot with him and Halle at their home. It was a summer day and incredibly hot. Probably 90 degrees with humidity to match when my assistant, Justice’s agent and I knocked on the door. Justice opened the door and let the agent inside. My assistant and I went to the back patio to set up. We waited. And waited. No water. No update from inside.

An hour and a half later, Justice and Halle came out. When he saw the lights we set up he started to pitch a fit. “What’s this? It’s like a major shoot!” By then I’d had enough. I was standing on a crate so I was almost as tall as he was. I said, “David, I told you this is the most important picture.” Then I turned to Halle and said, “The magazine offered to fly him out to your set the other week. Did he tell you that?” Halle gave Justice a pretty cold look and Justice gave me a really nasty look.

I showed Halle the little sketch I made of the picture I wanted and said, “Halle, you’re an actress and a model. I know you can do this. Make this work and I’ll be out of here in five minutes.”

The picture was well received at the magazine, a great shot of a couple in love. (They were divorced less than a year later).

J.P.: It strikes me that technology has changed the way people take photos, but also the way photographers are valued—or perhaps not valued. One can do 1,001 things with an iPhone. Film is no longer in play. Etc … etc. So I ask you—why, in 2015, do we need professional photographers? What can people like yourself do that some schlub like myself can’t?

R.M.: There’s no question that technology has really changed the photojournalism business. Our craft is definitely not as valued as it once was. But value still comes into play. You have to have an eye for composition and still, when it comes to sports photography, be able to anticipate the action. Schlubs like you should put your phones away during the game.

Although, I have to admit, the technology is amazing. More people than ever are shooting pictures because of it and some of the stuff is really good.

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With Rich (Goose) Gossage and Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez at Spring Training.

J.P.: You did a lot of work with Brooks & Dunn. I’m wondering what goes into shooting an album cover. Are there certain things you’re trying to express? Certain approaches that work? And how would you compare working with singers vs. athletes?

R.M.: There’s really no difference between shooting an album cover and shooting a Sports Illustrated cover except, most of the time, if you’re hired to shoot an album cover you have more time with the artists than you would with the athletes. They and/or their record label want to have input and often help create the concept. Also, performers want to look good so they usually take time with you. Their images are more important to them than most athletes. Singers are all pretty good looking—it’s hard to screw up when your subject is Martina McBride. When it comes to athletes, hey, we’re not miracle workers.

Shooting album covers, in my experience, is less stressful than shooting SI covers. And most of the singers I’ve worked with enjoy photo shoots so it’s a lot of fun.

J.P.: I know your professional history, but I don’t know your history. When did you first know you wanted to take pictures? Was there a light bulb moment? When did you realize you were talented? Like, really talented.

R.M.: I’ve never viewed myself as being exceptionally talented. Although I do think I can do better than most people shooting with an iPhone. I guess the light bulb moment came when a legendary SI photographer named Herb Scharfman came to Milwaukee in the mid-70s when I was Brewers team photographer. He looked at my portfolio and was so encouraging. That’s the first time I thought, “Hmm … maybe I can do this.”

Alongside Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks.

Alongside Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks.

J.P.: OK, I give in. Please tell us the Barry Bonds cable car story. It’s just so friggin’ good …

R.M.: In 1994 Bonds was the subject of an SI cover story after he left Pittsburgh and went to San Francisco. We needed an image that said “San Francisco” without using the Golden Gate Bridge. We decided to use the cable car barn. The folks there were great; they even took the  No. 25 car (25 was Bonds’ number) off line for the shoot.

My assistant and I spent several hours lighting the set for our noon appointment. Bonds was a no show and at 3:30 we struck the set and left for Candlestick Park for the game. Bonds was Bonds, he gave no real reason for not showing up but said, “No problem” for the next day. Up early, we set up again and at noon, Bob Rose, the Giants PR director called to tell us Bonds was on the way. Once again Bonds was a no show.

We set up again a third time. At this point I’m not sure what the cable car people thought of us. I went to the ballpark, found Bonds and asked him, “Are we doing this or not?”

The Giants wanted it. I wanted it. Barry said, “Yeah, lets do it.” The problem was the Giants were leaving on a 10-day road trip. As I was leaving the clubhouse, Willie McGee jokingly said I could use his apartment until the team got back. He even offered me his keys.

So I flew home to New York and met with the editors who told me to give it one more shot. Once again, I packed up all the gear and went back to San Francisco. Another morning of set up. Barry never came. I went into the clubhouse later that afternoon before the game where he was talking to his godfather, Willie Mays. Bonds looked at me and said, “You’ll just have to live with it, dude.”

I never got my portrait. The magazine ran a candid shot of Bonds leaning against his bat with the headline, I’M BARRY BONDS, AND YOU’RE NOT.

One of my all-time favorite Modra shots: Texas Rangers Jim Kern, photographed at Milwaukee County Stadium.

One of my all-time favorite Modra shots: Texas Rangers Jim Kern, photographed at Milwaukee County Stadium.

J.P.: Recently Sports Illustrated laid off all of the magazine’s staff photographers. How did this make you feel? What were your thoughts? And can an argument be made, with so many shooters out there and so many wire services, that, perhaps, staff photographers just aren’t needed?

R.M.: I felt awful. But the handwriting was on the wall for years. We’re in a digital age. Years ago, we stopped having to do things like bring the film back to New York after a game or ship the film. Our roles lessened. The magazine is no different than other media outlets these days. It doesn’t make sense economically to have so many people on staff. But it’s still really, really sad.

J.P.: What’s it like shooting a big event? Like, what’s your setup, your approach? And how do you know—absolutely know—you’ve nailed a great shot? And what does that feel like?  

R.M.: I loved big events. I mean, just to be part of it was great. Who wouldn’t want to be shooting the World Series or Super Bowl? I didn’t plan any differently than shooting a regular assignment. The one time I felt I really nailed it was the 1983 Super Bowl, when I spent three quarters without one decent play coming in my direction and then John Riggins broke the 43-yard run right at me. I felt great! Walter Iooss told John Iacono at the time, “I think Ron just got the cover!”—and I did.

J.P.: I live with a pretty chronic fear of death. Not death, per se, but the eternal nothingness that follows. Why aren’t more people concerned by this? Are you? 

R.M.: No.

About to be eaten by the Road Warriors.

About to be eaten by the Road Warriors.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest? 

R.M.: I think the greatest moment is getting your first cover. I can remember mine like it was yesterday: Detroit Lion Billy Sims. I can still see it in my mind’s eye: It was an overcast rainy day at Milwaukee County Stadium. I was working with John Iacono and Heinz Kluetmeier and to come away with the cover, well, there was no greater feeling.

I have to say there were not a lot of low points but one for me was in 1984. I had traveled pretty much around the world for a couple months photographing Olympic athletes who had been affected by the 1980 boycott but were gold medal contenders again four years later. Just after I completed the assignment, the Russians boycotted the Olympics and the magazine killed the essay because they felt it was no longer relevant. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great assignment. But I was very disappointed it never ran.

J.P.: You shot for SI during a glorious time in American magazines. So what was it like, in its heyday, being an SI photographer? I’m talking soup to nuts—travel, perks, the ballpark, the feel. At its absolute best …

R.M.: It was the very best. The best hotels, Beverly Hills Hotel, The Four Seasons—Jesus—I   once stayed at the Don Cesar on St. Pete Beach for a month while covering Spring Training in Florida. I once flew back from Paris on the Concord to bring back the film from the Tour de France (which made my friend, the great writer Ed Swift, very unhappy).

We had an equipment allowance and pretty much an unlimited expense account. I was able to travel and do and see things I only dreamed about. China, Russia, Cuba. It was an incredible time working with people like Frank DeFord, Ed Swift, Ron Fimrite, Steve Wulf, Curry Kirkpatrick, Dan Jenkins and Gary Smith. We worked as a team trying to put the best possible story together, with pictures and words. It was a time when it really meant something to work for Sports Illustrated. I’m very honored to have been a part of it.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH RON MODRA:

• Five greatest sports photographers or your lifetime?: In no order, Hy Peskin, Johnny Iacono, Walter Iooss, John Dominis, John Zimmerman. And, for a bonus, John and Vern Biever

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Phil Garner, Queen Latifah, Rihanna, John Jefferson, 1983 San Diego Padres uniforms, Barack Obama, Tanya Tucker, iced coffee with lots of milk and sugar, Abbey Road, your eyebrows: Abbey Road, iced coffee, eyebrows, Padres uniform, Phil Garner, John Jefferson, Barack Obama, Tanya Tucker, Queen Latifah, Rihanna.

• The next president will be … : Dave, as played by Kevin Kline. I thought he had some great ideas about the national budget in the movie.

• The most handsome baseball player you’ve ever photographed was …: Buddy Bianaclana

• Three memories from your senior prom: None. The date fell on the same day as the opening of duck hunting season in Wisconsin.

• What’s your dream camera?: Right now I’m using a Nikon D4s.

• In exactly 16 words, make an argument for Tupac: No real argument, I was a Tupac a day smoker in the Army, developed a bad cough so I quit.

• Would you rather live until 350 or 75?: No real age. As long as I have my health and there is rubber on the tires I’ll keep a go’in.

• We give you 100 at-bats in a Division III softball season right now. What’s your stat line?: Shitty

• Your best memory of the great V.J. Lovero …: Not only was he a kind soul but he rocked khaki’s long before Jim Harbaugh thought of it.

  • Ted Mark

    Nice quaz. I’m kind of amazed at the persistence of SI in wanting the photos of Justice/Berre, and Bonds, when they were clearly uncooperative. I would have just said, “Eff them, we’re outta here”, after the second snub.

  • Cd1515

    enjoyed it Jeff, well done.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life