Photographing Dan Gable for Sports Illustrated

Photographing Dan Gable for Sports Illustrated

Last spring, I got a dream call from one of the photo editors at Sports Illustrated to photograph the legendary Dan Gable, a wrestler from Iowa, and one of the most winning athletes of all time. From winning gold in Munich during the 1972 Olympics, to having coached other U.S. teams to gold after, this guy oozes excellence and passion in everything he does. I’m not one to be intimidated by people because of their status in life, but people who work as hard as he does definitely stand out to me.

Research and Pre-Production

Once creative was discussed and contracts were signed, SI handed off pre-production to me. They really wanted to see a couple of action shots showing how much he still trained. I chatted with Gable on the phone about the shoot, and about shooting at his home as SI had requested. He was fine with all of it, so we picked a date, and got moving.

I had about a two-week advanced notice, so I spent a little time watching interviews of Gable on YouTube. If you can do this with a subject whom you have not met before shooting, I definitely recommend it. It’s a good way to get a feel for their personality, posture, and how they converse. I did a little more research on his hobbies and interests, and started to formulate some shots in my head. Between talking to Gable and outside research, my subject was definitely an active guy still, so this action shot wouldn’t be a problem. He was still on the coaching board at Iowa State, but spent the rest of his time either boxing on a heavy bag in his barn, lifting weights, or chopping wood to stay fit.

Action shot as requested by client.

Shoot Day

On the morning of the shoot, my assistant and I arrived a little early to scout around and get a feel for the property. It was a beautiful morning, and Gable had several acres out in the Iowa countryside with a some woods, a barn, and several nice open pastures. In my head I had planned to spend most of the time working on action shots, with him both boxing on the speed bag and chopping wood. After I had those knocked out, I planned on grabbing a few tight portraits as alternates, and then calling it a day. We had two hours from setup to tear down to knock out a few different scenarios, so we would need to be focused. We met up with Gable for a little tour of his property, went through his trophy room (it was really cool to see an Olympic gold medal), and chatted a bit. I found out that he had just gone through a last minute minor surgery earlier in the week, and though he was fine to walk around and shoot, most of my planned action shots weren't going to happen. As we continued location scouting, I reconstructed all of my different scenarios; where we would start and end, and the gear and feel for each one. Gable said he would like to hit the heavy bag for a few minutes, but that's probably all he could handle for the time being. One thing I always try to prepare for is a throwaway scenario. This is basically a beginning shot that’s just me and the subject getting used to each other, and them with the camera, and it is not the highest priority image of the day. If it turns out as a nice image, then awesome, but if not there are other images we are more focused on once they are comfortable.

Location two.

Be Prepared for Change

I divided the day into two different locations on his property, with two shots happening at each. That gives my client four images to work with, while not being overwhelming to my subject or our schedule. The first (and my burner shot) was just an image of Gable sitting on a weight bench in his barn with the boxing bag in the background. I needed to keep him on the bag at the beginning of our day because I wanted him to have the most energy for that. Starting this way would let us get rolling at a nice pace, and moving to the bag immediately behind him wouldn't require a big lighting change. When you can be prepared in little ways like this, it makes everything much smoother for your subject and becomes easier for them to forget about all the equipment in the background and just be themselves. The rest of our day went really smoothly. After knocking out our first two shots, we moved outside to a wooded area and grabbed a few images of him with his ax. As my assistant started packing down, I grabbed a pop-up reflector and captured the last portrait. We just shot in open shade next his barn, Richard Avedon style.

Final shot of the day.

Final Thoughts and BBQ

There is usually a lot of creative freedom when you work on editorial assignments, which is what makes them so fun. A big difference between them and advertising is you are often working with subjects who aren't models, and therefore aren't usually as comfortable in front of a camera. Being able to control your subject, knowing when you've got your shot, and if something isn't working and you need to move onto something different is invaluable. Any shoot will throw you some pretty big curveballs, just don't be afraid to change your game plan as you go. Don’t be afraid to scrap your original plan and go with the flow a little bit. Being focused on and attentive to your subjects' needs and mood will be what determines a successful shoot, not just unwaveringly holding to your own plans and ideas. When it was all done, we had a great time, and I can't say enough nice things about Gable. We headed to his favorite local BBQ spot for lunch, and continued listening to some great stories from his life.

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3 Comments

Grant Beachy's picture

Jealous. I grew up just below Iowa City and Dan Gable was legend. Nice article!

Eric Mazzone's picture

I'm also totally jealous, I graduated from HS 20 years ago and wrestled varsity while Dan Gable still coached Iowa, I dreamed of wrestling for him.

Brian Reed's picture

Absolutely LOVE this article. What an experience you got to have. Envious for sure. :-) Thanks for the inspiration and coaching.