Andrew D. Bernstein, Hall of Fame Sports Photographer
I grew up in Brooklyn as a big sports fan playing stickball, football, basketball, street hockey … all kinds of stuff. I just loved sports. For my 14th birthday, my dad bought me an old Canon TL manual camera and taught me the basics of how to use it. He was a doctor, but he also saw himself as a great amateur photographer and used to do home movies. I, on the other hand, was never a visual person per se and not particularly creative. That summer of 1971, my dad and I made a trip to the western United States to visit most of the National Parks out there. That trip should change a lot for me.
We started our road trip in Jasper National Park in Western Canada, where I saw the most beautiful places I had ever seen. I just remember thinking what an incredible picture everything I saw would make. It was an epiphany, and I found it incredibly cathartic and exciting to be able to see these beautiful vistas then document them in my camera. Back in those days you were pretty limited on how many pictures you could take on one roll of film. You also had to think about lenses, composition, light, angles – often times in a very short time so you wouldn´t miss the moment. But my dad was a great teacher and he taught me the ropes and basics and just sort of let me learn by trial and error during that trip.
When I returned for my sophomore year of high school, I used a friend’s little darkroom his parents had built in their basement and learned how to develop black and white film and to make prints. It was a magical experience to see something that I saw first through the lens, then have it translated onto film and literally coming up before my eyes in a tray of solution on what a few seconds before was just a blank piece of paper. It just blew my mind. From that moment on, starting with that trip with my dad, I was hooked on photography. Once I saw the magic of what I could create, I had a camera on my shoulder 24 hours a day. I started taking pictures of everything and ended up becoming the photo editor of our monthly high school newspaper and the photo editor of the yearbook.
When I was a senior and it was time to make up my mind about colleges, I made the decision to go to the University of Massachusetts. I declared to be a communications major, simply because I thought that photography would “communicate” something and surely, they would offer classes in it – which I found out later, they did not. I was pretty disappointed, (which could have been avoided if I had actually read the course catalog and didn´t just assume things). During the second week of school, I wandered, as always with my camera on me, into the college newspaper office. Our college paper, the Daily Collegian, was published five days a week. Suddenly I heard a voice from the other side of the room: “Hey, you with the camera! You want to be a photographer here?” His name was Chris Bourne, a senior on campus and the newspaper’s photo editor. He hired me on the spot and sent me out to shoot something for the next day’s paper. Two weeks later, I became the assistant photo editor; his right hand. I was giving out assignments to other photographers and shooting assignments myself. I was literally shooting everything under the sun; from news, to sports, features, entertainment, fine art, whatever it was – and I just fell in love with it. I loved the vibe and I loved being part of the effort to put out a newspaper every single day. On weekends, we were shooting all the sports for the paper on Monday. It was literally a seven day a week job. I didn’t get paid, but it was an incredible proving ground for me. It convinced me that it was my path. I wanted to be a photojournalist in some way, but I didn’t know back then that it would actually be sports, even though it was at the top of the list of things I really enjoyed doing.
After my sophomore year, I came out to Los Angeles to spend the summer with my sister where I was exposed to the prestigious Art Center College of Design through a series of circumstances. I took a night class at Art Center and it just continued to expand my mind because I realized that this could actually be a career path for me. I mean, in case I didn’t want to be a photojournalist, I could be a car photographer, a fashion photographer or a commercial photographer. There were all kinds of different disciplines. So I applied to Art Center with the intent to transfer and they accepted me right away – but they accepted me for the following summer. The plan was to finish my junior year at UMass Amherst and then move to Los Angeles and start at Art Center for the 1978 Summer term. However, in November, the admissions office called me and said that somebody just dropped out and asked if I would I be interested to start earlier. I mailed in the rest of the semester at UMass, got on a plane in the frigid cold of January 1978 and moved to the warmth of Los Angeles, where I have stayed ever since.
Art Center had the reputation of being a hardcore commercial and advertising college. They groom you to be a commercial photographer who’s going to open up a studio right after graduation or work for big car companies, ad agencies or become a great fashion photographer. Photojournalism was not something they encouraged – they actually actively discouraged me! Quite honestly, I was shocked that they even accepted me with my photography background. During the first week of school, I was literally told that I was in the wrong place. Photojournalism was not what they would teach. But as it is, if you tell somebody from Brooklyn that they can´t do certain things, that´s only going to push them further to prove you wrong. And I succeeded. I had two teachers throughout my time at Art Center, who really, really believed in me and who saw my talent, drive and motivation. One of them introduced me to some Sports Illustrated photographers who then took me out in the field as an assistant. And that’s where I really learned the business, what happens on the ground and how to shoot every possible kind of sport. It´s not that I didn´t try different niches while in school…I did, but I was either terrible at them, or I had zero interest.
Credit: Andrew D. Bernstein
When I graduated from Art Center and it was time to go out on my own, it was all about hustling to stay active and get booked in the business of being a professional sports photographer. Luckily, I was able to reconnect with people I was introduced to during my time as an assistant while attennding Art Center. These were all strong leads affiliated with sports, e.g. public relations or operations directors of the different venues that I had to go in as an assistant. It certainly helped me to get the foot in the door, but it was also a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
In the early ‘80s the Lakers Showtime era was taking off and my first gig with the NBA was the ´83 All Star game, which was at the LA Forum. I became the Dodgers team photographer a year later in ´84 and things really started to take off from that point. It was an incredibly competitive profession; pretty cutthroat. Everybody was looking for an edge, but I’ve always conducted myself with as much integrity as I possibly could. I never undercut anybody, never bad mouthed anyone. I’ve had the same clients for over 40 years – —the NBA, LA Kings, Lakers and Clippers. I was with the Dodgers for 11 years from 1984-1995. I have served as the Director of Photography for AEG’s Crypto.com Arena and Microsoft Theater L.A. Live since the complex opened in 1999. I mean, those things don´t happen just by chance. There are specific elements that create longevity and inspire loyalty for clients to keep coming back.
I always see it this way: There are a lot of people doing what I do in this industry. But there is also a very fine line between confidence and arrogance. I’m a pretty confident guy, but I also know how to avoid crossing the line to arrogance to where it starts to be annoying and people don’t want to be around you anymore. There are some potential clients that are kind of motivated by somebody who’s got a little bit of a chip on their shoulder, but most importantly, the work has to speak for itself. The talent has to be there. You have to produce results, because you can’t talk yourself into a good photograph or accomplishing an assignment that you’ve been hired to do. That consistency and professionalism are really the primary ingredients of longevity in my business.
In the work that I do, I only have one shot! There are no do overs in my business. I couldn´t know that Kobe Bryant was just going to jump like he just did ever again. If you miss it, the moment is gone forever. When you do commercial work in a studio, you can go back and do things over and over again, but in the world of live action sports, you´re capturing a moment in time. It’s a very disciplined way of shooting and it all starts with being prepared. And preparation happens long before you get to the arena, the stadium or the assignment. For me, it started all the way back in school and as an assistant in the field with really learning everything about my equipment; about light and exposure. These things need to be second nature for me when I´m on the job. If I’m at an NBA Finals game, and a team is about to win the championship, I have to be prepared for the moment of chaos when I have to jump up and run onto the court by having the right equipment on me. That happens well before the game starts. Back in the days of shooting film I had budget my shots so I wouldn’t run out of frames on the roll and had to have film hidden on me in a plastic bag so it wouldn´t get ruined when I got soaked with champagne in the victorious locker room.
In our profession, we can prepare for a lot of things, but there is always also luck involved to some extent. Best case: you´re in the right spot, the action happens right in front of you, no one is blocking you and the player didn’t have his arm in his face. And then you just have to be a second ahead of what’s actually going to happen – and that comes with experience and being able to read the athletes. It’s a skill that only can be developed over time and after shooting so much sports, that you know how to be just ahead of the ball coming off the pitchers hand, the ball coming off the bat, guys sliding into home plate, a running back busting through the line, a slam dunk, a goalie making a save, or whatever it is. It all comes down to being present, being locked in and completely eliminating distractions. Imagine being in a stadium of 80,000 people, let´s say the Super Bowl, or an NBA Finals game, and 20,000 people just screaming their heads off behind you. You need to be able to tune all of that out and just be locked in to what’s in front of you. I always say, if I saw the picture in my viewfinder, that means I missed it. I need to be a millisecond ahead.
Being present also means to take your surroundings into consideration, e.g the people on the benches, the audience, the cheerleaders. The first gift of a subject to me as a photographer was Magic Johnson. When I was in my first year as a professional photographer, he was in his second year as a professional athlete. I had to study him constantly because he was so unpredictable. He never did the same thing twice. And because I work with lighting equipment that can only produce a shot every four seconds, I got burned many, many times. I thought he was going to pass this way, and he went that way. I thought he was going to go for the basket and then he dumped it off. That was such a learning curve for me. Michael Jordan was a little bit more predictable. And once Kobe came along, I was more prepared because I had the experience with Magic and Michael. Kobe was kind of a combination of both of them. I had to learn his game, while he was learning his own game as a young professional basketball player. This allowed us to bond over time because I was obsessed with trying to document his career, while he was trying to establish himself as an iconic player.
I definitely have some lasting memories from shooting games and getting feedback from the players. Karl Malone, who used to play for the Utah Jazz, is a huge, very talented and wonderful guy. He used to do a specific dunk, where he would put his hand behind his head, and then dunk it. I coined it the “Pretty Boy” dunk. Back in the day, since we weren’t able to email pictures, I would make some prints for him, which he loved. During the next game he would do that dunk again and as he turned to go back down the court, he would look at me like “You get that one?”. Things like that happened a few times in my career. Kobe on the other hand took it even further. He actually came to me and asked for prints of some famous NBA players; Magic, Bird, Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan. He was very specific as to what kind of pictures he was looking for and said “I want 8”x10” prints”. I thought that was kind of odd, but of course I made some prints for him. When I came to the locker room at the next game, I saw that he had taped the prints on the inside of his locker. When I asked him about it, he explained to me that he would study my photos not because they were nice pictures, but because he could learn something from them. He could see how Michael Jordan’s muscle tone was developed to a point, so he can motivate himself to get to that, or how another guy played defense. That just blew me away. And honestly, I had never had an athlete, or anybody, tell me that they used my photos as sort of a science experiment to dissect their own game and getting to the next level. It was humbling and extremely flattering. I felt like I was a part of his development in some weird tangent way. But that’s what made Kobe so extra special.
When I first met Kobe, he was 18 years old, I was 38. I remember seeing something in him that just reminded me of myself at 18. He had this look in his eye, this sort of chip on his shoulder, wanted to prove everybody wrong. Everyone doubted him from the beginning. I mean, he was this phenom in high school and came into the league when he was only 17 years old. When I met him, he had just turned 18. After he retired 20 years later and we started to work on the The Mamba Mentality book, I actually asked him “What was it about me that you trusted? To have allowed me into your inner sanctum and your personal world?” He told me that he saw from the beginning that I was just as crazy obsessed with my craft as he was with his sport. It was really about meeting on a like-minded level and building that relationship over the years. We had never talked about it until that moment. Kobe had a very famous saying that “If you’re not as obsessed with what you do as with what I do, we don’t speak the same language.” Hearing that from him was incredibly motivating me. He said to me, “Sometimes I would try to beat you to the arena. And every time I would get there, you’d be there before me.” Kobe watched everything. The guy was unbelievable on so many levels.
Kobe wanted our book to be almost like an instruction manual about how to aspire to be a great athlete and about what the “mamba mentality” meant to him. He never really discussed that in public. He was actually very vague about it. He wanted our book to be from his voice and illustrated by my photography. It was a daunting task at first, because he was very, very precise and demanding (in a good way). He knew exactly what he wanted. So my job, and my editors job, was to work closely with the NBA Photos archive in New Jersey because half of his career was shot on film. I mean, the book was a culmination of 20 years, and maybe a million photos I’d shot over that period. So the book is taking all of that mountain of experience and content and bringing it down into one really tangible piece of work. It is not a book about my remembrances or vision about Kobe – —the book was his vision. I was the other half who helped him to illustrate his vision. It’s a very rare thing when a subject and a photographer get to truly collaborate on a project. You can’t get any closer to him than I got. When he played it was sometimes just me and him in a room, or me and him and his trainer. Same was true for the book process.
credit: Andrew D. Bernstein
The first thing I tell upcoming photographers is that the opportunities are different now compared to when I started. I wouldn’t want to be breaking in as a young sports photographer trying to become a team photographer, or lead photographer, which was my path. Those jobs are so few and far between. In the NBA, there are 30 teams and there’s two of us who do two teams each. I do two teams in LA, my friend Nat Butler does the two New York teams. That leaves 26 jobs on the table for currently 28 team photographers. I think at least 20 of us have been with our teams for more than 20 years. Considered that, there’s very little turnover, there is also very little opportunity in that sort of old school realm. But then, there’s so much more opportunity now than what I had when I started out. Every team in every league has a digital content group, and every athlete under the sun, no matter what the sport is, is trying to brand themselves and stand out from the rest. They all need a videographer, still photographer, sometimes as the same person.
When I teach this – I do a lot of mentoring – I always need to say that you can’t look at my career and say I want to be “that guy”, because “that guy” really doesn’t exist anymore. I continue to help the NBA develop new talent all over the world. Photographers reach out from all four corners of the world to pick my brain. It’s one of my roles as being an ambassador of the profession, which is what I love doing and one of the reasons why I created the “Legends Of Sport” platform. It is very, very important to me to be creatively challenged, to have my creative juices kind of continually be replenished. And I love what I do. I still love going to games, but I’ve cut back quite a bit. Only because it’s very physically demanding. I don’t really travel that much anymore. I’m working hard on developing the Legends Of Sport platform which is really where I want to take the next phase of my work life. I want to take it off the court and bring it into the world of helping to promote and raise awareness about legendary athletes, moments, teams and those around the world of sports.
Legends Of Sport celebrates all of that, but gives the fans a sort of one-stop-shopping place to go for all things legendary in sports. This is now my sixth year of hosting a weekly podcast; over 170 episodes so far, where I talk to people who are connected to the world of sports in any way. The podcast is a lot of fun for me, I love doing it. I get to talk to people who I admire and have worked around for years, but also to those I would´ve never have the opportunity to talk to unless I had this platform.
I feel very inspired in my work life as I’m transitioning off the court and away from the camera to a platform where I´m able to continue my creative inspiration. We’re raising awareness, specifically about athletes who might need a little push as well as issues that are important to society such as mental health, social justice and pay equity. Sports is also an important legacy in families and it’s important for me to keep that flame going.
Inspired Magazine © 2023 All rights reserved.