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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Robert Beck - Photo Finish

Robert Beck is a Sports Illustrated photographer based in Southern California. On Monday he gets his assignments, and then he and his gear hit the road to bring in the perfect pictures...yet again.

The nascent career progressed, thanks to the time Beck was able to devote to pursuing photography. When you can pay the bills with a job that still allows you time to pursue other interests, you're in a fortunate position. It didn't take long before Beck was able to give up teaching and concentrate all of his efforts on photography. “I eventually worked my way into a senior staff position at Surfer Magazine. I gave up teaching altogether and traveled the world in search of the perfect surf shot.”

From surfing, Beck landed a job as a sports stock shooter. Basically, he got media credentials and a steady supply of assignments. Football, baseball, hockey, basketball—anything and everything, both college and pro—was ending up in front of his lens. He was moving around a lot and gaining valuable experience, but he still wasn't what you'd call a big-name sports shooter.

In the 1980s, surfing wasn't the burgeoning sport that it is today. It was popular and well known in California and Florida and other coastal areas, but outside of those places, awareness of the sport dropped off quickly. Despite this, Beck's photographs were still getting noticed outside of the insular surfing community. In 1986, that notice paid a considerable dividend.

Although the work ultimately lost its appeal as the whole surfing lifestyle changed, Beck's waning interest in the surfing scene drove him to seek out new subjects. In the fall of 1986, he traveled to Hawaii to photograph the Ironman Triathlon. He was given the assignment by a small sports stock photography company and arrived without much of anything but his camera.

Says Beck, “I slept on someone's floor the first night after hitchhiking into town from the airport.” When he arrived at the venue, though, Beck discovered that he wasn't going to have to shoot as a complete outsider. “I checked into the media center the day before the event and found out Sports Illustrated had hired me to shoot the race.”

The “SI effect” was instant. Beck was transformed from a minor stock shooter into one of the prime photographers at the Ironman. He had access to a helicopter for the start of the race and a vehicle and driver to follow the competitors throughout the exhausting day. The cache of photographs he took at the Ironman got him a Table of Contents spread in SI and the shot became one of LIFE Magazine's pictures of the decade.

With the 1986 Ironman, Beck was launched into the big time, but he was still freelance. Anyone who has been there will tell you that it's challenging to break into any endeavor with established regulars.

In photography, that's doubly true. For Beck, the solution was to look at sports that didn't receive huge coverage. Football and baseball have been primary sports for photographers for as long as there has been sports photography, so the opportunities were slim there. However, hockey, while big in parts of the country, wasn't nearly as popular with photographers in Southern California. Beck took advantage of that by getting into hockey coverage. He photographed players for hockey cards, among other endeavors.

Then, in the late 1980s, something extraordinary happened in Southern California—the Los Angeles Kings acquired Wayne Gretzky. Beck was a fixture at Kings' games and he ended up photographing every Stanley Cup playoff as Gretzky and the Kings stayed on top. SI took notice, of course, and featured Beck's work time and again. By the time the Gretzky era ended in 1996, Beck was being asked to cover the Olympics in Atlanta and, in 1998, he was offered a position as a Sports Illustrated staff photographer. He continues to hit the road today to get The Shot—every time.

To see more of Robert Beck's photography, you can visit his website at www.robertbeckphotography.com.



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