We’ve all been lifted up lately by the shows of daring, stamina, sportsmanship, and excellence in London. In the midst of all of them, a tiny Olympian with a huge smile and an embracing manner defined the term “grace under pressure” and spun, whirled and smiled her way to the all around gymnastics title. Little Gabby Douglas, aka “the flying squirrel” lifted the whole room (the whole room in this instance being the world) with her performance and heart warming demeanor.
That smile harked me back to my very first assignment for LIFE magazine, in 1984, when they sent me out after the LA Olympiad to capture another pixie who had leaped, double spun and vaulted into our hearts…Mary Lou Retton. As bubbly in person, off stage, as she was in the public arena, we spent just a few hours together after the Games were over. My mission, obviously, was to capture the smile and the personality….and the medals.
Mary Lou won the overall gold and several others of different shades to bring her medal haul to five. At that point, as I recall, she had yet to be photographed with all of them. So, in the brief period we had together, we conjured a hat in honor of her training home in Texas and figured out a way to rig the medals on it. (This was quick, direct magazine photography at that point. No stylists, makeup, smoke machines or art directors out there with us.)
Made the frame, and the one below, on Kodachrome, just flying blind with the light and moving fast. Needed a twofer, and the effervescent Mary Lou had a blast with the stuffed bear. It was the picture above, though, that got the most notice.
One of the reasons the pic with the hat and medals was important was the fact that she had not been shot with all five of them prior to this. We made some frames, and Mary Lou was as easygoing and gracious as could be. But then, the reporter I was with fielded a phone call from her agent, who demanded that I surrender the film and leave it behind. Evidently there was a big deal going down with a sponsor, behind the scenes, and the exclusivity of a pic of Mary Lou with all her medals was a talking point. Needless to say, the few rolls I shot came with me, back to LIFE. (Mary Lou couldn’t have cared a whit, by the way, about all the backstage shenanigans. She was as fun to photograph as the pictures indicate.) But it does get interesting when the agents get involved. (And by the way, I’m totally with the Olympians in terms of sponsorships, support, you name it. They labor, intensely, largely in obscurity, for a sliver of a chance at success that comes along once every four years. If they do well, I say go for it!)
The pictures never ran in LIFE. When I got back to NY, I found that the assignment had taken a different direction, and it was pulled from me, and my pictures were killed. Another shooter was assigned, who went on to photograph Carl Lewis as Hamlet and other more elaborate constructions. I thought, well, that was a brief, but interesting career at LIFE that I just had. One job and done.
But….and here’s the vagaries of the path you walk as a shooter, the very next month. I got a phoner from the mag and assigned to a far bigger job, on the art scene on the lower East Side of NYC. Similar in a way, as I was once again photographing something gold.
Poppo, from Poppo and the Go Go Boys. Painted gold, on a roof at sunrise. As I always say, stuff like this happens down on the Lower East Side all the time:-)