Q&A and great stories from AVP staff photographer Robert Beck

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Brandi Chastain celebrates scoring the penalty kick that clinched the 1999 USA soccer world cup/Robert Beck, Sports Illustrated

Robert Beck, the AVP staff photographer, has shot 10 Super Bowls, six Olympics, all four golf majors and countless other big sporting events and top athletes. He’s photographed the world’s premier athletes and last year he shot 120 days for Sports Illustrated.

When Donald Sun took over the AVP in 2011, Beck was the perfect choice for his staff shooter. We recently visited with Beck about his sports photography career:

Robert Beck at the Pebble Beach Golf Course, photographing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am/AP Photo/Ben Margot
Robert Beck at the Pebble Beach Golf Course, photographing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am/AP photo by Ben Margot

VBM: How did you get started in sports photography?

Beck: I needed some extra money. I was a substitute history and social studies teacher in San Diego. In the afternoons, I borrowed my father’s camera and started shooting high school athletic events. I eventually sold enough prints to buy my own camera— my first camera was a Canon AE-1 program — and a couple of lenses .

I started shooting surfing on the side and all my friends wanted pictures of themselves and I just got better and better and better. Eventually I let teaching go and did more and more photography.

I got onto the masthead at Surfing magazine, and after a year there I went to Surfer magazine, and became a senior staff photographer for them. At the time I was making $500 a month plus whatever they published, but at least I got free film and got to travel and write.

In 1986 I got my first job shooting the Ironman Triathlon for Sports Illustrated through the stock agency I was working for at the time. I did a good job, and they liked my work, so little by little I received more and more assignments from them, and eventually became a contract photographer for SI in 1996 and a staff photographer in 1997.

VBM: With all the sports you photograph, are you a big sports fan?

Beck: I’ve shot some interesting people and some great games, but I’m not a huge sports fan. I like sports, and I grew up playing sports, but I’m not the guy that reads the sports page every day. It’s my field and it’s great for photography because there’s a lot of action, there’s great color, there’s interesting people.

When you go to these events like a Super Bowl, you’re really not watching the event like a fan does. If it’s a good game I have to hope that I can watch it later on TV. You realize what’s going on, and it’s exciting, but it’s not the same thing. You’re not pulling for people, you’re not cheering for things as they happen. You’re concentrating, trying to pick out what’s going on.

Robert Beck has photographed volleyball for over two decades/Robert Beck, AVP
Robert Beck has photographed volleyball for over two decades/Robert Beck, AVP

VBM: How did you get interested in photographing volleyball?

Beck: Volleyball started when I was at the Focus West stock agency. I used to live in Manhattan Beach, that was in the days of Karch, Sinjin, Stoklos, Dodd, and Hovland. Somehow I got hooked up with the Cuervo people. Every year I did their Triple Crown tournaments. Those were really fun to do, they were incredible.

Those people were really just crazy for the players. One of the problems for the AVP now, and they’re getting better, is that the players are not as flamboyant as they used to be. There were a lot of characters out on the sand in those days. So it was really easy for the fans to get involved in the game. The players were yelling and screaming, and this and that. There was a lot going on.

Surfing magazine started a volleyball magazine at some point, and they knew that I did the Cuervo tournaments, so they asked me if I wanted to staff for them, so I did a ton of beach volleyball, I did a lot of indoor volleyball and a lot of collegiate and national team stuff. That was a pretty good run of 10 years in volleyball.

I had never played volleyball growing up or anything. I just kind of learned as I went, and it was a great time period for all kinds of volleyball. To me, beach volleyball took a down-turn after Atlanta. I think it’s really made a comeback in the last two or three years since Donald Sun took over. And that’s how I got back into it, Lori Okimura (of USA Volleyball) was friends with Donald Sun, and when he purchased the AVP, they needed to rebuild their library, so they called me.

This is my fourth year back now, and every year I see progress. More people, the play is great, obviously, the players were a little quiet when I first started, but the personalities are starting to poke out a bit more. They’re still trying to find their feet, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s pretty good.”

VBM: What is the difference between shooting film and digital?

Beck: Now is the time frame that you can get product out to whoever needs it. Within five minutes you can get an image of a player on social media, that’s the best thing about digital. In the old days, generally it would be at least one or two days before you would get your film processed.

In the old days, they had this film called Polapan, it was black and white, and kind of grainy, but you could process it right away with cartridges of chemicals. We could show big slideshows that night at the parties after the tournament, and those days that was a “Wow!” We can see the tournament photos right away.

Now with digital, we can have every image we want right away. I never thought that digital would look as good as film, but now I think it looks much better than film ever did. To get something as good as it is, and have it right out of the box, is a big coup that digital has produced. I think that some day we’ll just be pulling digital frames off video, it’s not quite there yet, but I think that’ll happen. It’s really fun to see what you have right away.

I enjoy being at tournaments, I enjoy watching guys and gals play, I like the personalities and the people, but just looking at the imagery is still what’s exciting to me. I like going back to the computer, downloading and picking out really good images right away, and getting them to the people that need them. That’s pretty satisfying to me.

VBM: Out of the millions of images that you’ve produced, are there any particular ones that stand out?

Beck: In the 1999 or 2000 soccer World Cup, when the USA women won the World Cup at the Rose Bowl, I was actually shooting from the stands, we had two shooters on the field, and it was the most people that had ever watched a women’s soccer game. I think the Rose Bowl held 102,000 or 104,000 at the time and I got the picture of Brandi Chastain after she scored the final goal to win the game for the USA, and she tore her jersey off and the place went crazy.

I ended up on the field, even though I didn’t have a field credential, and ended up behind the net, even though I wasn’t supposed to be there. It was a great shot, and a great day.

A few years down the road, I finally met Brandi Chastain, and she was so excited, and so delirious to meet me. She said, “You don’t understand how many lives you’ve changed with that picture. Yeah, we played that game, but hundreds of thousands of girls across the country saw that picture, and thought, ‘Hey, you know, we’re on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and I can play a sport, and can be as good as the guys are.’ ”

And I never thought of my photography or any photography, in that vein. It never dawned on me how it could change people’s lives. And obviously, not every picture does. Some of them are really cool pictures, or technically really well done. But there are pictures that really mean something to some people and change their life in some way. That was my most important picture in many ways.

VBM: How do you deal with missing an event or a play?

Beck: There obviously have been games or events where you don’t get the pictures that you want. That’s going to happen. If you can’t live with that I don’t think you’ll be a photographer for very long.

That’s one thing about playing sports all through high school and college. In sports, you probably have way more failures than successes. Part of the deal with sports is that you can fight through those failures, learn from those failures, and be more successful. It’s the same with photography.

Get over the stuff that you don’t get, get over the stuff that you miss and get on with it and try to do your job. There are times where it can be frustrating or disappointing. You can go to the Super Bowl, where we might have eight photographers, but not all eight will be published in the magazine. Maybe it’s the year that stuff didn’t happen at your end of the field, so that’s kind of frustrating.

VBM: Do you have any war stories? Ever ruined a camera?

Beck: “Two stories come to mind. I did flood a camera once back in the surf days. We used to use these Navy issue canvas mats. This is before boogie board at Waimea bay. We would inflate them so they were almost rock hard, and sit on them and paddle out with your camera, and every once in a while you would get rolled by a big set. The mats also had this rope around it that you could hold onto, or tie it to something, and I got rolled by a wave, and one of my camera controls got hooked on the rope, and pulled out, letting water into the housing, ruining the camera.

“Anyway, I got home, and Surfer magazine used to have a Christmas party with a white elephant gift exchange.  So I wrapped the ruined camera in the original box, and it turns out that the person that got the gift was the publisher’s wife, and she was so excited, she thought it was a camera that worked. I had to explain to my publisher that you have to tell her that the camera doesn’t work. I felt so bad because she was so excited, but it was really just a large paper weight at that point.

“And at the 2008 US Open that Tiger Woods won, in the final day Tiger was hitting out of the rough, and I was kind of late getting up there, so I laid down inside the course to line up the fans behind him on a knoll. I’d been shooting Tiger for a long time so I knew Tiger, and his caddy knew me, so he gave me some leeway when I was shooting from a place that maybe I shouldn’t be because he knew I wouldn’t be shooting him on his backswing.

“So I’m laying there, Tiger addresses his ball, and all of a sudden my watch’s alarm goes off. I was able to turn it off after it only beeped twice, and I didn’t move. Tiger stepped back, and looked in my direction, but I don’t think he figured out what the sound was, and since I didn’t move, he didn’t think it came from me. If he’d known it was me, he might have been pretty perturbed, and TV would have gotten the whole thing, and it would have been a mess, but he never figured it was me.”

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