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Walter Iooss, Jr. has been called the luckiest photographer on earth, which, given his 50-year resume of living the dream, is tough to argue. His first job — at 17 — was shooting Roger Maris’ 61st home run at Yankee Stadium, and it only gets more “Are you serious?” from there. At 19, he shot his first Sports Illustrated cover. For the next 5 years, he was the in-house photographer at Atlantic Records when James Brown, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix roamed the halls. For the next 50 he chronicled all your idols — Jordan, Ali, Woods — for Sports Illustrated, and in 40 of those he jetted to the world’s most beautiful beaches to photograph all your … uh … favorites — Ireland, Banks, Nemcova — for the magazine’s Swimsuit Issue. His sons, Bjorn and Christian, both followed him into the family business, and while you may never see half of what the he’s seen (okay, you definitely won’t), you can still follow Walter’s tips to help your kid see the world through a photographer’s eyes in the hopes that they one day might.
ABC: Always Be Capturing
The moms in your Facebook feed have the right idea with all those baby pics (So. Many. Baby. Pics.), they’d just serve their kids better by occasionally taking a photo of anything else. Iooss’ sons were immersed in photography as they watched and joined him in snapping every moment of every family trip. He still remembers Bjorn’s first Polaroid, taken as a kid on vacation in Key Biscayne. By high school, Bjorn was obsessed, and a series of photos he took at a Bronx retirement home helped get him into the Rhode Island School of Design. So there you go — take some photos at the beach and visit Nana already. She’s lonely.
Phones Are Fine But Cameras Are Magic
The centerpiece of the Iooss home is a 5-foot lightbox where the boys would intently watch Iooss work and look through slides. These days, the grandkids are similarly enchanted. “They see pictures all the time — we’re always taking pictures of them — but the first place my granddaughter goes is the lightbox and the Polaroids on the little shelves. That’s how it starts.”
How does it end? Probably with an iPhone. Iooss acknowledges their capabilities and, as a doting grandpa, appreciates the instant sharing. But photography still relies on things like lighting and background that phones don’t teach well — especially to impatient, 7-year-old grandsons. “[Kids] need to get that range finder and see what they’re doing through it with a digital camera. See what’s happening, see their mistakes,” he says.
For that, nothing beats the real thing. Iooss’ kids grew up shaking, smudging, and altering Polaroids from his beloved SX-70. “A magical photographic invention,” he calls it. “The phone doesn’t come close. Anything that processes, to me, is still the magic of photography.”
Be Cool And Stay Cool
Iooss built a reputation for being one of the most genuine people in the business, which started on his very first assignment when he vowed to leave every place and person he visited better than when he arrived. Step One in that process is always treating people with respect. Step 2 is doing so with a cool, calm demeanor. “‘You’re the captain of the ship.’ That’s what I’d always tell my sons,” Iooss says. “You’ve got to stay cool, because every shoot some insane, you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me thing happens that’s never happened before. That’s one of the great beauties of photography — it’s never the same. I’m astonished every shoot.”
Exposure Is Key
Introduce your kids to the great photographers of history so they’ll understand and be influenced by the past. Literally, if your last name is Iooss. “[Bjorn] was always very dedicated to his craft because he learned a lot from his different heroes,” Iooss says. Giants of the industry not your coworkers? Cool, that’s what books are for.
Similarly, your kids probably won’t be standing in for Peyton Manning while you get your latest ‘Got Milk’ shoot properly blocked out. They can, however, suffer with the rest of you while your hired photographer works for 45 minutes to get one announcement-worthy shot of their new baby brother or sister. Point is, behind-the-scenes lessons are equally important to behind-the-camera ones.
As Is Focus
If photography is a long-term interest, your kid will eventually have to hone in on a particular discipline. Photographers are rarely hired to shoot multiple types of things, even those with legendary last names. It took years for Bjorn to build a portfolio that wasn’t a cacophony of subjects and styles and helped people realize he was a visionary fashion photographer in his own right.
Speaking of, just because island-hopping with supermodels sounds like your dream job, doesn’t mean it’ll be theirs. When Bjorn got the call to shoot Irina Shayk in Hawaii for SI, Iooss thought his son’s day had finally come. “Take no prisoners,” he texted, to which Bjorn replied, “I killed it.” He got the cover and an offer to return the next year … and turned it down. Iooss, like you, thought the Hawaiian sun had burned Bjorn’s brain.
“In the long run, though, he was right,” says Iooss. “He had a vision for what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it, and he trudged along for some years but his decision was right. It’s paying off.”
Not that you can’t encourage photographing gorgeous, half-naked people in bucket list locations. Just, you know, also encourage following their own path. You might even get some work out of it.
“Our other son loved photography too, but he utilizes it as Director of Photography and Video at Golf Digest and he hires me,” says Iooss. “I work for him 20 days a year, I have a contract. It’s sort of a nice circle of life.”
Take Better Portraits With Your Phone
You’re probably not going to photograph swimsuit models any time soon (sorry), but you do have a portrait shoot with your kid scheduled for always. Here are 5 ways to improve the pics clogging your phone from famous portraitist Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.
- Keep It Simple. Be ready to go, get right into it, and show your kid each image on your phone after you take it so they’re engaged in each one.
- Frame Them Correctly. For a portrait, that means keep the subject’s head tight to the top of the frame. Centering the head = amateur mistake.
- Mind Their Surroundings. If you’re outside, avoid squint-inducing bright sunlight. Turn around to see what the subject is seeing and be sensitive to their view.
- Find Their Good Side. Everyone has a “better side” and, 90 percent of the time, it’s the left side (weird but true). Shoot the subject from that angle.