As the KU women’s volleyball team erupted two weeks ago in joy over their selection to play in the NCAA Championship, the camera held to my eye covered portions of my smiling face. While the team celebrated over hosting the first and second round matches in KU’s Allen Fieldhouse, I focused more on what could be their Sweet 16 destination – sunny Los Angeles.
From that point on, the team just had to come through for me. Come through they did with victories over Wichita State and Creighton to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history. The following Wednesday, I was sitting on a plane bound west.
By the next morning, I was standing on the Santa Monica Pier staring south towards Venice Beach then north towards Malibu. While the temperatures verged on chilly for Southern California, the warmth felt wonderful on my skin that quickly has paled during the early Kansas winter.
Alongside me was the perfect travel guide, Laura’s and my dear friend, Joey Terrill. We met Terrill in 2006 when I presented and taught at the Sports Photography Workshop in Colorado Springs for the first time. Terrill was very well-known for a variety of photographic skills. Together with his brother, Mark, the two got an early start stringing for the Los Angeles Times.
While Mark stayed with journalism and now is a renowned Associated Press photographer and award-winning sports photographer, Joey saw a different light. The light came from the intricate strobe light sets he creates for portraits of the country’s top celebrities and sports stars. He also has created wonderful architectural images in the form of stunning buildings and luscious golf courses. He loves to scuba dive and brings beautiful images from the depth of the seas with his underwater cameras and lights.
In 2006, his ability to see light, or the need for light, to tell a story stunned me with its brilliance. The idea of using light in that way was something I still am working constantly to grasp. There was a time in my in life when lighting almost anything made me want to “pee down my leg” as I have told Terrill. Over the ensuing years at the workshop, I learned so much about lighting from Joey, that I now have a level of confidence I never imagined.
Along the way, we both grew to understand the burning desire we share to do the very best work possible again and again and to attack life with passion. That led to long conversations about so much more than just photography. Faith, work relationships, old girlfriends, wives, children, cycling and, yes, even manscaping. Nothing is left out. Laura feels the same way. When she was at UCLA last winter with the swimming team, a luncheon and tour was just as important for her as it was for me last week.
Our day started with a dash to the beach and legendary Santa Monica Pier with its ferris wheel at pier’s end and the building Paul Newman called home, along with its amazing carousel, in the acclaimed move The Sting. The quiet of the early morning gave us room to roam and catch up on our lives. Unfortunately, up and down the nearby beaches the surf could not have been more flat. There was not a surfer in sight. After a morning at the beach, capped with great fish tacos and seating outside in the warm California sun, we headed to the University of Southern California’s Gavin Center for the official NCAA volleyball press conference and practice.
For the KU women, this was the first appearance by a KU volleyball team in the Sweet 16. The three seniors sitting at the press conference table in front of three reporters represented the perfect cross-section of players that helped bring the KU program to new heights.
Erin McNorton, the team’s All-Big 12 setter, plays a critical position often overshadowed by the powerful kills from tall dynamic front-line players or the acrobatic dives by small back line players loaded with gymnastic moves. During a match, McNorton weaves her way around the court with a quiet efficiency reflected by her quiet demeanor during the press conference.
Then there is Brianne Riley, another All-Big 12 performer. The libero is greatest communicator I have encountered. She never stops talking on the court but always in a positive and important way. She positions her teammates, points out opponents’ setups and always encourages everyone. No wonder her answers at the press conference came through a raspy voice that appears soon after the team’s first practices of the season.
Finally, in the middle of the group sat All-American Caroline Jarmoc. The tall Canadian blocked and killed her way into the KU record books and into the hearts of anyone that enjoys a bit of quirky attitude. As the press conference dragged on and a reporter asked whether the players wanted to expand on a response from coach Ray Bechard, Jarmoc looked at her teammates and joked, “Nope. That ought to do it.” Press conference over. No wonder I am a big fan.
Once practice concluded I settled into the passenger seat of Terrill’s SUV for the trip back to the beach. The usual heavy freeway traffic gave me more than enough time to work up a photo gallery from the afternoon practice and transmit it to the KU website.
With work completed, we cruised up Highway 1 to Zuma Jay’s Surf Shop. Terrill, whose father was one of California’s top surfers as a young man, knows the area well. While I worked my way through the no-frills shop packed with racks of board shorts, wet suits and surf boards piled high along the walls to pick out a few Christmas gifts, I began a conversation with the shop owner, Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner. Nothing like being a land-locked Kansan in a Malibu surf shop as a conversation starter.
Once Wagner’s girlfriend, Candace, discovered we were photographers, she pointed out that Wagner posed as the Marlboro man for years during the long-running series of famous cowboy photographs. Eventually, the advertisements died as United States legislation killed cigarette advertising. However, they remain popular in foreign markets, and my late friend Brian Lanker, and one of Terrill’s favorite photographers, made remarkable photographs for them before his passing.
Wagner began to list off some of the famous photographers he worked with as Candace pulled out photo albums. The best story was yet to come. Discovered while a student at Pepperdine University many years ago, Wagner soon found himself shirtless in a pair of Jordache jeans with the arms of a young, bare-backed Christie Brinkley wrapped around him as she showed off her Jordache jeans.
That famous photo campaign paid him $1,500 a day, earning him lasting fame and enough money to buy his first house. The Marlboro ads later bought his house in Malibu. The surf shop opened in 1975, while unpaid terms as mayor of Malibu followed. The model looks might be masked today by lines and creases from years in the sun, yet Wagner clearly maintains a very So Cal attitude towards life. He sent some things along to me this week with a note on the envelope referring to me as the “photog dude.”
There was more good fish to eat that evening at Duke’s, a Malibu landmark honoring Duke Kahanamoku, one of surfing’s pioneers. There also is a tie to the real-life Gidget, Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman. Zukerman’s father wrote a book about his daughter who began to surf Malibu in 1956 at 15. The book led to the popular movie, Gidget, starring Sandra Dee and then a TV series. Zuckerman continues to make regular guest appearances as a greeter at Duke’s, but on this night I was the happy guest.
The early evening became late night with Terrill’s wife, Jennifer, joining us for a portion of the dinner. Finally, the clock in my body set off its Midwestern alarm, but not before I sought lighting advice from Terrill, showing him early tests of a football project for next fall. Typically, that came in the Omni Hotel’s loading dock area Terrill had used before to haul in lighting equipment.
Now, there is a reason no photograph of Terrill accompanies this blog. I was not about to shoot one. Like they say, “you don’t tug on Superman’s cape,” which is what I would be doing trying to make a worthy portrait of my great friend. He would say the same about shooting sports action alongside me.
The next morning I refreshed myself with a long walk around downtown Los Angeles, which for an area called “La La Land” is not all that different from any big city’s concrete maze. Soon I came across the well-known Kogi Taco Truck I heard about on many food shows. I had to let the line of “suits” waiting to order thin out before I ventured back for my order. It is not every day I can order a short rib burrito. The mix of Mexican food with Asian flavors delighted me while I sat on an office building’s steps with other patrons. The sun on my face carried me through to the KU match against Washington that evening.
There I continued my long conversations with the other Terrill brother, Mark, on hand to cover the matches for the Associated Press. The Terrill’s plan to join me and other photographic friends for a one-day ride across Indiana this summer. We discussed the work ahead needed from us to tackle the 168 mile event which is not easy to fit in around our hectic work schedules.
Seeded third in the Championship, Washington proved to be too powerful for KU on the night, but that cannot diminish the accomplishments of an amazing group of young women I really enjoyed covering. Sitting across from coach Bechard on the very early Saturday flight home, he already was thinking how the team could build on this for next season and make another giant step up. I plan on being there with my cameras.
Fortunately for me, a small KU cheerleader barely filled the middle seat on the plane next to me. Before we even lifted off, she rolled up into the seat with her legs resting on her partner’s legs as both slept throughout the flight. With room abounding, I comfortably settled in for the flight back to reality.
The shock of the frigid weather at the airport smacked me hard as Laura met me for a quick trip to the downtown Kansas City Sprint Center for a KU men’s basketball game. Taking a secondary role at the game to Laura’s shooting, I spent the second half editing so that a gallery would be done quickly. As my weary head hit the pillow that night, memories of all the fun quickly led to “California dreaming on such a winter’s day.” I am sure as I slept there was a sunny smile on my face.