Just Do It – Bob Peterson Interview As told to Nick Santora
Originally published in Sneaker Freaker Issue 35 – April, 2016
Bob Peterson has taken more legendary shots for Nike than Kobe and LeBron combined. His photographs spawned dozens of iconic posters and advertisements featuring the Mount Rushmore of Nike athletes: Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, Charles Barkley, John McEnroe and Andre Agassi, among others. As a teenager, Bob began shooting athletes for Sport Magazine and Sports Illustrated, before landing a staff position at LIFE, where he shot several covers stories. In the late 1970s, he connected with Peter Moore at Nike, when it was still a running-focused company. In the mid 1980s, Wieden + Kennedy and Just Do It arrived and nothing at Nike has been the same since. Thankfully, Bob had his camera to document this monumental time in sneaker history.
Bob Peterson: When I shot for Nike, I had no idea that forty years later people would still be interested. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that some of the stuff was part of history. When I was much younger, and I suppose this is true for a lot of people in their 20s and 30s, you just sort of do what you’re doing. You try to get the assignment, you try to do your job right, you get your film into the lab and then you hope the editors are going to like it. I really didn’t think any more of it.
There Is No Finish Line
Nike’s original ad agency was John Brown & Partners, out of Seattle. The first significant ad that we did together was written by John. The tagline was ‘There Is No Finish Line.’ Nike used it for years until Dan Wieden came up with ‘Just Do It.’ That line became the runner’s credo and people really loved that poster. They still contact me today looking for it. The Art Director was a guy named Denny Strickland. He was tall and gangly. John Brown was a short chain smoker and I’m a rather large photographer. We were at a Nike party in Sun River the night before a race one time and Denny had a drink in each hand and John’s lighting one cigarette off another. A guy came up and asked if we created that poster and I said, ‘Yes we did, why?’ He couldn’t believe it was us three that created it, but also said it was a very important poster in his life.
The Supreme Court
The next big poster we did was The Supreme Court, which we shot in Reno. There were dark clouds in the sky behind the players and you could see the white sneakers peeking out under their robes. This was back in the day, so I rented the robes myself and my wife took the hems out. The Supreme Court was the last thing I did with John Brown and Denny Strickland. Shortly after that poster, Peter Moore chose Wieden + Kennedy as Nike’s agency. Dan Wieden and David Kennedy had just left their jobs to form their own agency and Peter gave them the Nike account. The rest is history.
For the second Supreme Court poster, we went to Washington DC. We thought we could shoot at the actual Supreme Court building, but when we showed up, they told us to go away. They didn’t allow any sort of commercial photography, so we went and found another similar looking building and posed the guys there. The art director and I decided to go back to the Supreme Court without the entourage and photograph the building. Now remember, this is before Photoshop. Today you could do this so easily, but at the time I had to shoot the Supreme Court building with the same lens that I shot the guys with, and on the same angle. I also defocused the background so it was just a tiny bit soft. Today you would do that all digitally, but we had to manually put that image together.
Air Jordan II
Nike would send me down to shoot when Joe Pytka was filming commercials. He was really a master with lighting. Whenever he finished filming, I would get two minutes to shoot and I became very good at it. For the Jordan shoot, we went to Raleigh Durham, North Carolina. Joe Pytka was set to do a big commercial shoot with him and they decided they didn’t want to allow any time to do stills. Peter Moore had to pay them to come in one day early to light the gym. Michael arrived that day in his own car. Later on, the athletes wanted their own trailer and a personal sushi chef and a limo to pick them up from the airport. Michael wasn’t like that. He was just a regular guy.
The first time I met him, he held up ten fingers and said, ‘Ten!’ I said, ‘What does that mean?’ He took the ball and stuffed it. He came back to me and said, ‘Nine.’ So I said, ‘Oh no, we’re not even set up. You have to wait!’ We set up our cameras and he was jumping and stuffing the ball. His wrists were hitting the rim, so I could see where he was coming from. You could only dunk the ball so many times before it really started to hurt. The next day during the television filming, I was able to shoot Look Up In The Air, which ran as a double page in Sports Illustrated. I remember riding on a bus with my son’s basketball team when they started running that Air Jordan commercial. It was slow-motion of Michael elevating off the ground. One of the fathers was claiming that Nike used plexiglass stairs that Michael climbed up. I said, ‘Excuse me. That’s bullshit! I was there. Michael just jumped up and dunked it!’
Gotta Be The Shoes!
The picture of me with Spike and Mike was on Spike Lee’s roof in Brooklyn. Spike had done that movie with the Mars character and Jim Riswold at Wieden + Kennedy was the guy who talked Nike into using him, which became a whole series. They were shooting a commercial and that was another instance where I said, ‘You gotta give me two minutes, guys!’ I don’t remember exactly, but I’m sure it was something about Mike getting the girl and Spike saying, ‘It’s gotta be the shoes, Mike. It’s gotta be the shoes.’ Spike was another nice, no-nonsense guy and it was a lot of fun to work with him.
Ryne Sandberg & James Lofton
I did two interesting posters that were designed by Ron Dumas. One was James Lofton at Lambeau Field and the other was Ryne Sandberg at Wrigley. I was much younger then and didn’t realize that having Lambeau or Wrigley Field all to myself was so special. James Lofton isn’t the kind of guy you call Jim. You called him James. He wanted that type of respect and he earned it through his playing. Both guys liked the idea of being on the posters, respected the whole concept, and were very generous with their time and attitude.