Before the Internet, the only way to look at pictures of sneakers all day long was to cover your bedroom walls with them. Today, kids have Tumblr. Back then we had four walls and Fun-Tak. A legit 1980s bedroom sports shrine was anchored by a variety of posters supplemented with cut-outs from weekly magazines. Every sports hero of the decade was available in poster-form thanks to Sports Illustrated, Starline, Nike and Costacos.
The Nike and Costacos posters were always my favorites for obvious reasons. While standard posters from other companies provided a sufficient in-game action shot surrounded by a border, the Nike and Costacos posters created alternate universes where the athletes had alter-egos reflecting their style of play and unique personalities. In retrospect, the Costacos posters are more famous, but Nike should be credited for inventing this style in the early 1980s with the classic Air Force One team, Dallas’ Doomsday Defense, Moses and Chocolate Thunder.
Bill Sumner is one of the original photographers of these Nike posters and several important 1980s sneaker advertisements. Bill and I talked recently and took a trip down memory lane as he shared some of his experiences photographing athletes during an era when the endorsement money flowed and the athlete’s handlers and entourages were still a decade away.
Nick Santora: How did you get started doing the athlete portraits for Nike?
Bill Sumner: The Dallas Cowboys Doomsday Defense poster was the first one I did for Nike. We had a guy in Dallas make the gravestones out of Styrofoam and shot it in the studio. I got a branch and hung it over the top of the set and lit it. We had two 55-gallon drums of dry ice and fans making the low-lying fog. Incidentally, we had to interrupt the shoot because all of a sudden Ed Jones is saying, ‘I’m really not feeling so good.’ Then the other guys started saying something’s wrong here. It turned out we had displaced all the oxygen in the studio with the CO2 from the dry ice. We had to clear everybody out into the street for a while before we could finish the shoot. The studio was on the outskirts of Dallas, so it didn’t cause a big commotion that we had all these football players standing out in the street in uniform. Everyone thought it was sort of funny.
That was actually a limited run [poster] and it ended up being re-created by someone in New York and they started selling it. It was originally only intended to be a point of purchase thing. It came to Nike’s attention that the poster was being sold and they weren’t the ones selling it. They caught the guy and sued him. Then they said to themselves, wait a minute, maybe there’s something here? That’s how it all started.
Companies aren’t really doing posters anymore. The concept of a poster is gone, although there is still such a thing as wall space. Nike never intended to make money by selling posters. All they wanted to do is get the kid’s hero wearing Nike shoes on his wall. The parents didn’t stand a chance and it worked. I think it would still work. Now obviously the kids go online and on Twitter and every other thing, so the brands are plastered all over there. That’s the place people are looking so I can understand that, but that kid’s wall space has not gone away. I still think it’s a good market to get the shoes in front of the buyers and the mothers and fathers; the financiers.
I’ve been a fan of your posters since I was a kid and just came across your name the other day while looking at your Dan Marino PONY shoot.
Sure I remember it well. We had to go out and find the Ferrari, dress him like Don Johnson and shoot him on the beach. It was before South beach had really taken off. You can see a couple of the old hotels in the back sort of out of focus in that shot. They were the renovated ones that were the beginning of the South Beach resurgence. Prior to that time it was a retirement community and really a depressing place. Then Miami Vice came along and the idea surfaced from PONY to do it.
At that time I was living in Texas and had a studio in Dallas. I’d been doing some poster work, some early ones for Nike and the word got around and other companies began to call me. That whole era was also the beginning of the athletes getting big contracts and making more money from endorsements than from the teams they were playing for. It began with Nike then other sneaker companies followed suit and were responsible for the big money athlete endorsements. That all sort of blossomed during that time. I had a deal with PONY and if it wasn’t them I would have tried with adidas or Puma or somebody…
The Marino shoot was fun because Dan’s a nice guy. I forgot where we got the car, but I had someone find us the Ferrari, and we took it out on the beach. In those days you didn’t need all these permits. You just went out and did it. Afterwards we went and had a meal and I was sitting on a porch with Dan and a few of his friends, that was pretty nice. I was sitting around with Dan Marino having a few drinks and eating a sandwich. I had that kind of experience quite often.
Were athletes more approachable back then?
Oh yeah. Charles Barkley was another great guy. After a shoot one time he said, ‘I need some new clothes. You’re gonna have to come and tell me what I look good in.’ The crew and I hopped in the back of a limo with him and went speeding around Philly to the Big & Tall men’s stores and he’s trying on this and that and we had a good time. Afterwards we went out for dinner and a few drinks and he was just a really nice guy.
I shot Kevin Durant for Nike a year or two ago. Now the deals are for X number of millions of dollars and they’re required to do five shoots during the course of a whole year. The shoot can only be so long and involve so many things. It’s very specified. What happens is you get a guy in and they want to do everything at once. The athlete is just going this way and that way. They’re saying he has to be here for this and then over there for a wardrobe change for the fashion stuff. Then they’re going to be in this TV commercial and they get it all done in one day. You really don’t have time to socialize or do those extra things anymore. Most of these guys are really nice guys. Even John McEnroe. It was always interesting from that point of view. I enjoyed the time I spent with them.
You shot the McEnroe Rebel With A Cause Nike poster?
Yes, I did Rebel With A Cause. That was a fun one. We were in the beginning stages of merging images together so it looked like the athlete’s were there even though they weren’t. This poster was a tongue and cheek knockoff of the famous James Dean shot in Times Square. In fact we got sued for that shot. It didn’t affect me much because I’m just the photographer, but James Dean’s people contacted Nike’s legal department. We shot McEnroe in the studio and my assistant was very excited because we had to make rain. I found a studio in New York with a drain and we got a hose to shoot water up in the air. We also shot him in very flat light, like it would be if he was outside in the rain. So basically my assistant was making the rain fall on John. How many people have ever been able to hose down McEnroe, you know?!
I hung out in New York for a few days and stayed with some friends I hadn’t seen in a while. The forecast was for bad weather so I just waited for a good, shitty day and went to Times Square and did the other shot. We had a re-toucher who put them together. It was the very beginning of the computer stuff. There was a woman in Texas who I’ve completely lost track of who was a re-toucher and married to a computer wizard. They would put the stuff together for us and did a great job. We were on the cusp of doing the posters this way. Ideas would come up and then we would say, ‘Well how the hell are we going to do that?’
At the time we were thinking how are we going to get McEnroe outside in Times Square during a rain storm? The logistics were just too much. That’s when we started to figure out there was another way and found the people to put it together. A lot of them got too tricky like Dr. K (Dwight Gooden) with the smoke coming out of the baseball. There was also Gary Carter catching an apple with the New York skyline in the background. Today it happens all the time because it’s so easy to do on the computer. It’s not easy to do it well though. There are some guys doing it very well whose work I greatly admire and I keep trying to figure out how they do it.
Is that a real tiger with Lance Parrish?
Lance Parrish is one that we really had to do and was really stupid. That was a real 700 pound tiger and he ended the shoot when he took a big growl at Lance! I’ve got a shot here somewhere of Lance going, ‘Oh my God!’ We’re on the set out in Los Angeles and there’s a guy with a whole pile of steaks on the side. He’s throwing them at the tiger to keep him happy throughout the entire shoot. It turns out that it was the same tiger who was the Exxon Tiger. There were two tigers actually. If one got nasty we could substitute him for the other one.
It was an interesting shoot. When they brought the tigers to the studio, they unloaded them in the back alley and had them on long leashes with several people handling them. One of them was sniffing around, like cats do in a new place and there was a recessed door in the alley. The tiger went sniffing in the doorway and there was a drunk passed out in there. He woke up to a 700 pound tiger staring him in the face and he shot straight up in the air and took off running down the alley! All these little things happened during the shoots. We had a good time doing it.
Another one I had a lot of fun with was someone I’m still in touch with, Franco Harris. In fact I found a picture of Franco and his son a couple years ago so I made a print and sent it out to his wife. We did that Steeler Pounder thing and at the time of the shoot he brought his four or five year old son with him. We had pieces of twisted steel made out of Styrofoam and footballs cut in half. Then we went cruising around. I had an old motor home in those days and we cruised looking for a location and we came to that particular spot and said ‘This is it!’ We had all these old mill buildings in the back, so we fired up the generator and set up the strobe and said ‘Here it is. We’re gonna do it right here.’ We used to do a lot of that. We cruised looking for a spot, find it and shoot it.
We did one with Mark Jackson, Hometown. Same kind of a situation. We had Mark in the limo with us and a couple little portable strobes and we had in our mind what we wanted so we drove over the bridge a few times and said how are we going to do this? I said ‘I’ll tell you what. We’re going over the bridge and we’re all gonna jump out real quick and by the time you bring the car back over the bridge we’ll be done and ready for you to pick us up.’ That’s exactly what we did. Today you would get stopped by the cops immediately. We were doing sort of guerilla shooting. That’s how a lot of the stuff used to happen. These sports posters were some of the most fun things I did. I had a chance to work with guys like Kirby Puckett. He was a hell of a nice guy. And Bo Diddley…
That’s right. You shot the Bo Knows poster.
That was one where the TV spot was going on. It would happen fairly often. We would go into a shoot and Peter (Moore) would say to me, ‘Well we really don’t have a concept so just go in there and shoot anything you can get.’ So as this commercial was going on, I shot the hell out of it. They were filming it and the poster just came out of that shoot. We also shot a ton of stuff with Bo Jackson that wasn’t posters; a bunch of catalogs. They used to produce catalogs like crazy, so we worked with him quite a bit.