Back when I was covering Major League Baseball for Sports Illustrated in the late-1990s and early-2000s, there was a writer-photographer kinship that, I suspect, no longer exists.
At the time, I absolutely loved walking onto the field a couple of hours before a game and chilling with the photographers. They were, with rare exception, some of the nicest men and women in the sports media world. One of my favorites was Brad Mangin.
Though he wasn’t on staff, Brad always seemed to be shooting for the magazine. Or another magazine. Or a team. Or the league. In other words, if you were covering the Giants in San Francisco, Brad would certainly be there—smiling, joking, advising … and taking some of the best friggin’ sports photographs I’ve ever seen. Hell, if you don’t believe me, check out Brad’s breathtaking website, featuring images aplenty.
Brad remains an elite baseball image creator, as well as the first photographer to be Quazed. He loves the Brady Bunch and Barry Zito, has no desire to ever again wear a diaper and is the author of a wonderful new book, “Instant Baseball: The Baseball Instagrams of Brad Mangin,” which captures the entire 2012 season through the lens of Instagram on his iPhone. Brad Tweets regularly, and blogs here.
Brad Mangin—smile for the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Brad, here’s something I’ve long wanted to ask a veteran sports photographer. Back when I started at the magazine in the mid-1990s, everything was film. Film, film, film—which meant you had X number of shots to take, it had to be developed, etc. Now that your world is entirely digital, has any of the mastery been taken away? What I mean is, if you have a near-limitless number of shots you can take, does skill still matter as much?
BRAD MANGIN: Great question, Jeff. It is true that back in the day we had to shoot film—and not just any film but super-hard-to-expose-properly color slide-film for the magazine. We had to nail the exposure by really understanding light and how it fell on the athletes during a fast-paced ballgame. As the light changed our exposures changed and you had to really nail it on the film because there wasn’t the technology back then to really help you out on the production end if your pictures were too light or too dark. Now with digital we have so much room for error both in shooting and in production that we don’t have to be so perfect. Also—like you mentioned—we don’t have to worry about running out of film in the middle of a huge play. I can’t imagine going back to shooting 36 frames before having to stop and reload. There were times I would panic at a football game and pull a roll of film at 20 during a timeout just so I would not run out. Now I can shoot hundreds or thousands of pictures on one memory card. Bottom line—there is not as much skill needed to shoot sports with digital as you needed back in the film days.
J.P.: Brad, I know you’re a west coast guy, know you graduated from San Jose State in 1988. But how did this happen to you? Like, when did you develop your love of photography? When did you know you were better than meh? And what was your big break?
B.M.: I grew up in the east bay city of Fremont, right in the middle of Highway 880 between Oakland and San Jose. I always loved sports and thought I was going to be the next Al Michaels or Lon Simmons. They were my favorite San Francisco Giants radio play-by-play guys on KSFO in the mid 1970s. I listened to almost every game on my red Panasonic transistor radio, since they only televised 20 games a year back then, and I dreamed of calling the Giants games on the radio when I grew up. One big problem was I had a terrible voice that cracked like Peter Brady when I was the PA announcer for our high school basketball games. I knew I never wanted to have a real job, and I lucked out and found photography during my junior year of high school when my best friend Joe Gosen got me to take basic photography from Paul Ficken. That semester I fell in love with shooting black and white film and experiencing the thrill of seeing my prints come to life in the dark room—just like Greg Brady! I parlayed the cash I was making from washing dishes, busing tables, and wearing a mouse costume at Chuck E. Cheese that summer to buy my first camera (a Canon AE-1 Program in 1982) and I was on my way.
My mom was an artist and she gave me the gift to see things. When I was young I loved to draw and always did well while working on elementary school art projects. I guess photography was a natural progression. By the time I started shooting for my junior college weekly newspaper, The Monitor, at Ohlone College in Fremont I was really hooked and knew I wanted to be a photojournalist. After two years I transferred to San Jose State to study photojournalism under two teaching legends: Joe Swan and Jim McNay. They had a great PJ program there and a daily student newspaper, The Spartan Daily. The combination of my great teachers, and the terrific group of other students in our program taught me so much.
Going to school at San Jose State led to my first big break in 1987 when I landed my first newspaper internship at the Contra Costa Times. While at the Times I worked with a great group of people who are still my dear friends to this day. They taught me how to shoot Fourth of July parades, house fires, and Little League baseball. They also let me tag along with them as an extra shooter to pro sporting events where I learned how to shoot big-time sports.
My biggest break occurred in June of 1990 when legendary photographer Neil Leifer hired me to be the Bay Area staff photographer for The National Sports Daily. Neil was the director of photography and Frank Deford was the editor. This incredible national sports newspaper was the first one ever in the United States, lunching in January of 1990 in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. We started here in San Francisco in July of 1990 and folded on June 13, 1991. During that year, as a 25-year-old punk photographer, I covered the World Series, Super Bowl, and NBA Finals. I met so many people. It was the best staff job I ever had. After we folded I had to cash rainbow-colored unemployment checks for a while but the experience I gained help me start a freelance career in 1993.
J.P.: Your new book features photos you took with an iPhone, then Instagramed. It’s really cool and really impressive. However, can one argue that Instagram—for us hacks—is sorta cheating? Like, if everyone can take cool pictures using this free app, what’s the challenge?
B.M.: To me the big challenge was proving that it is not the camera (in this case my iPhone) but the artist behind the camera. Over the years many people have enjoyed my pictures and commented that I have expensive cameras and lenses that help get me close to the action. This is true, but I also have years of experience being a photographer. By using my iPhone I am using the same piece of equipment many others are using, yet I am making pictures that are causing people to think I shot them with my real cameras. Many people can’t believe I shot them with my phone. I tell them the phone is capable of doing great things—it is just a tool. By turning the images around in Instagram I am then sharing my images on a fun social media network, thus publishing my images to thousands of people out there who choose to follow me. Being a freelance photographer I rarely get published, so Instagram has become a fun way to self-publish in an instant and share my vision, in this case of baseball, with friends, fans, and colleagues all over the world instantly.
B.M.: Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t. There are times when a great play happens in front of me, like a collision at home plate in the other day’s 18 inning game between the Yankees and A’s I shot in Oakland. As I hit the shutter button and fired off over a dozen frames I thought and hoped there would be something good. When I looked at the images on the back of my camera I saw a few frames I liked. The amazing thing is how many great moments you can miss—even at 10 frames per second. Many subtle little moments happen between frames—and as they say—if you see something great when you shoot your pictures that means you did not get it. That is because you are only recording the moment in the fraction of a second when the mirror is flipped up to make the exposure. If a great image is burned into your brain that means you saw it through the viewfinder and the exposure was not made.
There are other special times when you are in a groove, and—as players will often say—the game slows down. These are the times when you know your are making great pictures. The light is fantastic, the action is there, and their are great facial expressions. These are special moments that stay with you for a long time and remind you of the film days when you did not have to look at the back of the camera. You could confidently drive to the airport, put the film on United flight #78 to Newark, and feel good about the slides that the editor would look at the next day.
J.P.: You’ve done a shitload of portraits through your career. What separates a good portrait from a great portrait from a classic portrait? And how do you take a guy sitting on a stool and make it timeless?
B.M.: I am not a formal studio portrait guy you hire to shoot a magazine cover. The portraits I make are very informal of guys hanging around the batting cage or sitting in the dugout before or during a game. To me you need to have the reader connect with the subject to make a good portrait through the expression, eyes, or body language of the ballplayer. Some players have better facial expressions than others, and sometimes it is the light that ties it all together. Sometimes it is a great smile that makes a portrait work and other times it is the tenacity in an athlete’s face that tells the story of his or her competitive spirit.
You can put a guy on a stool and make it timeless depending on the environment. You could shoot a guy in an old locker room in black and white and picture the guy playing with Babe Ruth in old Yankee Stadium. A guy in harsh sunlight wearing a garish and awful batting practice cap sitting on a stool on fake grass does not work too well.
B.M.: Most of the photographers I know and have worked around for years locally or nationally all get along pretty well. Sure, we are very competitive and all want to get the best picture, but what goes around comes around and there are so many times when we need each other’s help over the years it pays to work together.
I have only shot one Olympics, in Atlanta in 1996, so that really doesn’t count, but I have heard some pretty nasty stories about fights between photographers while covering big international events like this. Be it cutting someone else’s remote wires or fighting over a position, things can get pretty heated at an event like the men’s 100 meter finals.
The only fight I have personally witnessed occurred in the photo workroom area at Minute Maid Park in Houston after the 2004 Major League All-Star Game. It was a long, hot, and busy week for many local shooters and a pair of local guys reached the boiling point with each other after the game and went after it pretty good. There was loud noise, blood, and everything. I felt bad for the guys, both of whom lost their jobs the next day.
J.P.: How doesn’t shooting baseball eventually get old? I mean—same dimensions, same confines, same uniforms, same basic plays? How do you maintain a passion for shooting something so unchanging? And do you generally love heading for the ballpark, or dread it?
B.M.: I really love heading to the ballpark every time I shoot a game. I shoot around three games a week and also attend 10-to-12 games a year in my San Francisco Giants season ticket box seats that I share with many friends. The worst day at the ballpark is far better than the best day of working with a bunch of corporate assholes in some boring office. I love seeing my friends at the park; the writers, photographers, media relations folks, security guards, groundskeepers, etc.
The great thing about shooting baseball in the Bay Area is I have two great ballparks to shoot in and there is a game almost every day. After shooting many games in Oakland for a week or ten days and getting sick of that park the A’s hit the road and I get to shoot the Giants in San Francisco, and vice versa. Being on the west coast is also a huge benefit. Things are much more relaxed out here and working in our parks is a real pleasure. I get to shoot all the teams in both leagues over the six-month regular season so there is always someone new to shoot.
I would dread having to go shoot a parade, pancake breakfast, city council meeting, car show, brush fire or traffic accident.
It could be much worse. I could have a real job!
J.P.: A couple of weeks ago the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire photography staff. What did you think of this? Is it an omen of things to come for newspaper photographers? Do you feel like news agencies undervalue photography?
B.M.: I think it is horrible and very short-sighted by the newspaper management. This was a huge surprise when I saw the headline, but upon further review it really wasn’t. It is no secret that newspapers have been struggling for years and fighting with bad management inside their own buildings on how to make money on the Internet. Sure, they think reporters can take pictures with iPhones to take the place of the staff photographers. I bet there are some staff photographers who could write if staff writers got canned and no one would would know—but that would never happen. The photographers at every newspaper I have ever worked at were treated like poor bastard second-class citizens who couldn’t write, couldn’t spell and weren’t true journalists.
Most of the good writers I know realize how important it is to work with a good photographer on a story, but hey—everyone is a photographer these days! The saddest part of all of this to me is what happens to the photographers. These people are trained photojournalists who love their work. They were working their dream job. They certainly weren’t working for the money because all of us that get into this profession know there will never be big piles of cash getting direct deposited into our checking accounts every two weeks. We are story-tellers and this is what we do. Unfortunately for the photographers laid off in Chicago, and at other newspapers across the country, there is no other newspaper job waiting for them. It is all over and they will be left to fend for themselves in the nasty world of freelance, which is pretty impossible to jump into these days if you have to start from scratch buying cameras, computers, and insurance for yourself and your family. There just isn’t enough work out there to sustain a living.
The sad reality is that many of these people have taken their last pictures as professionals. I have friends who have lost their newspaper staff jobs who ended up driving cabs and delivering medical samples in order to provide for their families. That is real life, and it makes me so sad to see what has become of the profession I love so much.
There are fewer and fewer news outlets and publications that care enough to pay for unique content—from a writer or a photographer. In a time when everyone is fighting for Internet traffic many companies are taking the easy way out by using content that is just OK or good enough. This makes no sense to me. The days of extra special content produced by trained professionals are dwindling. It is a race to the bottom.
J.P.: What’s your best story from your career? I believe everyone has a money story (mine has to be John Rocker). What’s yours?
B.M.: I could never come close to your Rocker story!
One of my favorite stories is the crazy weekend I worked for Sports Illustrated covering the opening weekend of the XFL in Las Vegas and San Francisco in February, 2001. I flew to Las Vegas on a Saturday afternoon to shoot a Las Vegas Outlaws game that night with a team of other SI photographers. We needed to shoot the spectacle of the event—from crazy promoter Vince McMahon to the sexy cheerleaders to the drunk fans. I flew back home on a 1 am flight and shot a game on Sunday between the Los Angeles Xtreme and the San Francisco Demons at AT&T Park (then it was Pacific Bell Park). It was a nutty weekend and I was tired on Monday when I got the call from the office telling me I had the cover. It was my first national cover (I had a regional one in 1998) and, man, was I excited! The XFL has vanished as a distant memory so most people these days don’t even know what it was—but I will never forget it!
J.P.: V.J. Lovero, our mutual friend and SI photographer, died nearly a decade ago. What are your memories of V.J.? What sort of photographer was he? And what, had he lived, would he be doing today?
B.M.: V.J. was the one photographer I knew who everyone loved. He was an incredible photographer, but a better person. All you had to do was look at everyone who came to his memorial service and funeral. I have never been around such an amazing group of colleagues as I was during the two days we honored V.J. in southern California in January of 2004. So many great photographers and former ballplayers (including Rod Carew) spoke at his memorial service and Mark McGwire snuck into the back of the church to attend his funeral service.
I first met V.J. in 1990 when I was shooting the A’s in Oakland for The National Sports Daily. V.J. was in town for Sports Illustrated working on a Jose Canseco cover story. I had been in awe of V.J.’s baseball photography and getting to meet him in person was a thrill. I was a 25-year-old knucklehead and V.J. taught me so many things that were important in his life: what to watch on television; how to order in a restaurant; how veteran photographers divide the bill evenly after dinner (if they don’t play the Match Game); what to look for when shooting a baseball game; how to stay in nice hotels on the road (be sure to get a bowl of goldfish in your room if you stay at the Monaco), and how to tip.
If V.J. were still alive today he would be enjoying life with his lovely wife, Trish. He would be making drives to Santa Barbara in some sort of fast and cool car with fancy rims to watch his youngest son Jay play college water polo. He would also be hitting all the cool clubs in the Los Angeles area to see his oldest son John play in guitar for one of his rock bands. He would be so proud of his boys. He would also be at the ballpark making the best baseball pictures in the country for Sports Illustrated. He would especially love shooting young Angels superstar Mike Trout. Finally, he would still be struggling with his control as he pitched in an over-40 men’s hardball fast-pitch baseball league. He would still be practicing his motion in front of a mirror and and begging for people to catch him on the days he needed to throw.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Domo, Barry Bonds, café mochas, social workers, magenta, pea soup, Jim Rome, hot sauce, The Today Show, 4-hour baseball games, Shea Stadium, Veep, Tom Verducci, Florence Henderson, Hulkamania, Third Eye Blind: I have always been a huge Brady Bunch fan so my first choice is easy. I also have horrendous memories of this awful pea soup my mom used to make us eat with little chunks of ham in it, so my least favorite it also easy.
My list—Florence Henderson, Barry Bonds, four-hour baseball games (as a photographer I love long day games because the light gets so pretty. We had 18 innings here in Oakland last week and it was awesome), Shea Stadium, café mochas, Tom Verducci, Jim Rome, Domo, magenta, social workers, The Today Show, Third Eye Blind, Hulkamania, Veep, hot sauce, pea soup.
• Five greatest sports photographers of your lifetime: This is incredibly hard. I have had the pleasure to meet and work with so many of the greats who I have looked up to for years. Here is my list, in alphabetical order: John Biever, Walter Iooss, Neil Leifer, Hy Peskin, John Zimmerman.
• Celine Dion calls. She wants you to be her personal Las Vegas photographer for three years. Pros: She’ll pay $13 million per year. Cons: You work 363 days per year, you wear only a diaper and she walks with you on a leash. You in?: I never liked wearing diapers. Maybe they were different long ago. I remember them being really thick and crunchy. That would annoy me. I also don’t like jewelry or anything else around my neck, so I am pretty sure the leash would be a problem. Besides, I would only have two days off each year so I wouldn’t even be able to spend the cash—even in Vegas. I am also not a Celine Dion fan. I’m out!
Can I turn the tables on you and ask if you would be the personal biographer for Hall & Oates for $13 million a year while wearing a diaper and being dragged around by a leash in Atlantic City for three years? You in? [Writer’s answer: Hell yes!]
• Five nicest ballplayers you’ve worked with: Barry Zito, Nelson Cruz, Ryan Theriot, Buster Posey, Ben Sheets.
• Five biggest jerk ballplayers you’ve dealt with: I really haven’t had too many problems with ballplayers over the years. Most of my problems have been with over-zealous control-freak security guards, mean parking lot attendants, and rude PR people. Why do some PR folks constantly kiss ass with the writers yet treat photographers like we have never covered a game before and don’t belong at the ballpark? The bad behavior by some PR people makes me really appreciate the great people I get to work with here in the Bay Area.
• In 30 words or less, make an argument for J.T. Snow’s Hall of Fame worthiness: J.T. Snow is the best defensive first baseman I have ever seen. Incredible hands and footwork around the bag. Loyal teammate. Friend to V.J. Lovero.
• How many more years do you think newspapers have in print?: As an optimist I think that some newspapers will still be around in print form for at least 10 years. Many will slowly stop printing and only be available in print form on Sundays. That will be a very sad day. I grew up learning everything I know about baseball from reading Ralph Wiley in the Oakland Tribune in the 1970s’s. I got my start as a newspaper photographer and met so many great friends over the years from the newspaper business. I also love holding a newspaper in my hands when I read it. I know I am old school but there is only so much I can read on a computer screen.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details …: One time I was flying home from shooting a Chicago Bears game at Soldier Field in December of 1995 on United into San Francisco. I was on a new Airbus A320 and remember how smooth the flight was. I was having a relaxing flight after shooting this game for Upper Deck and was looking forward to seeing friends at a Christmas party back in the Bay Area after I landed. I always get a window seat and I could see that for some reason we were circling over Half Moon Bay along the California coast. I thought there might be a delay at the airport or something. Suddenly the announcement came over the PA saying our landing gear was unable to turn. Our landing gear was down, but the pilot would be unable to steer when we hit the ground. After circling for like an hour we finally dropped into the approach line for SFO and were told to get into the crash position. We landed safely and when I looked out the window after we stopped I saw tons of emergency vehicles lining the runway just in case we crashed. That is when I started to get scared. This had been more serious than I thought. We had to be towed to the gate. We got a lame $20 gift certificate from United and in the excitement I left my copy of Quicken for Dummies on the plane.
• If we give you 500 at-bats in a Double A season, what’s your line?: Man, that would not be pretty. I am such a pussy and was always afraid of getting hit in Little League ever since 11-year-old fireballer David Kiel hit me in the head with a fastball when I was 8-years-old. I could always pitch and throw strikes, but my at bats were just awful as I always stepped in the bucket. You gotta figure that in 500 at bats I would walk a few times and maybe beat out a little dribbler down the third base line with my blazing speed. I would also get hit a few times which would undoubtedly causes scary flashbacks to the game at Mattos Elementary School in 1973 when I got hit in the head. That would put me at about 456 plate appearances with 3 hits, which is so bad I can’t even figure it out what my batting average would be!
• My neighbor Laurie is debating whether to buy her husband a barbeque or a hammock. Thoughts?: Easy! Hammock. No question. Such a great way to relax and something very special that most people don’t have. Besides, they probably already have an old rusted Weber they can get a few more years out of but a hammock would make him really happy. He would be the envy of the neighborhood. My dad loved laying in his hammock.