The attached rough copy of a very fine Peter Reed Miller photograph in Sports Illustrated illustrates the sad state of photography along the sidelines of college football today. The fact that this photograph was captured along my beloved Nebraska sidelines makes it more sad but not any more surprising.
Look past the image of Rex Burkhead crashing head first into the goal line pylon after missing a sure touchdown catch against Texas last weekend. Look instead at the photographers in the background in the yellow vests. Count how many still photographers you see with their camera to their eye. Not one. Three photographers have already begun to lament, not over a missed photo but over a missed touchdown.
Last Saturday, I was moaning and groaning too, except, I was doing mine in front of my television screen. I would be so embarrassed I might not be able to work again if a photo of me was captured being a fan on the sidelines. Not doing my job and instead being a fan is completely unacceptable. I learned that lesson very early in my photography career.
After beginning my career at the Topeka Capital-Journal as an 18-year-old, I immediately circled the date of the first Nebraska football game I’d get to cover as a photographer. I was so excited to be on the sidelines in Lincoln to cover my life-long favorite team. There was only one problem. Sitting in the lab that evening as Rich Clarkson edited the film, I couldn’t understand why so few of my photos were being printed for the next day’s paper. Only after I looked at my film did I realize that even though I had never outwardly cheered, I had spent too much time cheering in my heart. I missed good photos because I watched too much even if it was through a 560mm Leitz lens. That would never happen again.
As much as covering any Nebraska game or match is still a thrill for me, my duties as a photographer have always come first since that day in 1969. In 2005 when Nebraska’s 37-year winning streak against KU was finally snapped, my sorrow over that fact never interfered with my work for Kansas. As much as I hated to see that streak end, the photographs I made of the historic Kansas victory were some of the best of my career.
Unfortunately, sidelines today are tighter than ever and are filled with far more fans than real photographers – even if those fans are carrying cameras and trying to claim they are professionals. Digital photography has been God sent to so many good photographers. I know I would not have the job I love so much if it wasn’t for digital photography.
However, that same technology and the plethora of so-called “photo agencies” that now litter the internet has opened doors for nothing more than amateur photographers. They are willing to squander major amounts of money on camera equipment in exchange for a sideline credential and the hope a “blind squirrel does find the acorn.” Thanks to digital cameras and autofocus lens some of those squirrels occasionally find an acorn. Most media relations directors would just as leave hand out a pass than try to sort out who really should be kneeling on a sideline.
In the summer of 1997, I approached KU about doing their photography work. Doug Vance was the head of media relations at the time. He never hesitated to offer me paid work for which I will always be thankful. The next day I drove to Kansas State and asked their media relations director the same question. I was told I’d be welcomed at KSU if I could do it for free. It was made clear that for a sideline credential there were plenty of photographers more than willing to give Kansas State all the photos they wanted. I politely declined.
I heard that nearly 18 months later the legendary coach Bill Snyder, in a meeting with Kansas State’s media relations staff, threw a KU media guide on the table and asked why KSU didn’t have the same quality photographs. The next day Kansas State starting calling me with paid work. Fortunately for me, that led to KU offering me a full-time job. It also allowed me to suggest Kansas State contact the fine photographer Scott Weaver who now does all of their photography. Kansas State learned a valuable lesson every media relations director should know. You get what you pay for.
While running the photo operation at the Capital-Journal, I sent a photographer to Houston to cover a Chiefs’ playoff game. A Kansas City player caught a late touchdown pass to secure the victory. As I watched on television, the receiver turned and shockingly seemed to throw the ball directly at the Topeka photographer. Actually, the throw was at a taunting sign hanging from a wall beside the photographer. Nevertheless, the question I had for the photographer after the game was why the camera wasn’t to his eye and why we had no pictures of the exuberant throw?
When Laura and I watch a game on television, she has learned to look at the photographers in the background and what they are doing. She now points out the people not doing their jobs to me. Two years ago, we helped the Kansas City Associated Press photographers cover a race at Kansas Speedway, Laura asked me what to do if a car lost control in front of her and was headed for her. “Duck behind the wall, but hold your wide angle camera above the wall and keep shooting,” I said. Laura knew I was joking, but then again, not really. When Laura first started shooting, she asked what she was to do should a player come close to running her over. I told her, “Save the cameras.”
I mentioned that the photograph from Nebraska was sad but not surprising. Nebraska sidelines have always been difficult. In the early 70s an elderly gentlemen sat on the sidelines of every game. When I asked why, I was told the man helped recruit Johnny Rodgers and could sit anywhere he wanted. Must be a trend at Nebraska since you’ll never see more photographers sitting on the sidelines shooting.
I always tell people that as much as I love Nebraska, I am glad I don’t work there. It would be hard to be a fan and try to do my work. While I might not be a huge KU fan, I can assure you that has allowed me to give everything I have to doing my job well which I feel has benefited KU. The Sports Illustrated photo reminded me of just how important that effort is even if it means making photographs of a really bad Nebraska play.