October 23, 2014

Seeing the Dodgers Through the Lens of Jon SooHoo

It’s a typical March Spring Training game for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and team photographer Jon SooHoo is crouched in the home team’s field tunnel, waiting.  The fading sun sets behind home plate at Camelback Ranch.  SooHoo fidgets – his perfect natural light is beginning to diminish.

Slowly, players, coaches and training staff begin to emerge, one by one, and make their way to the field.  Manny Ramirez, Casey Blake, Reed Johnson and Justin Knoedler pass by.  Some are all business, some are playful and nearly all throw a friendly greeting or knowing smile in SooHoo’s direction.

“Where’ve you been?” teases pitcher Scott Lindblom as he passes SooHoo’s clicking camera.

“You guys wore me out!” responds SooHoo, referring to the Dodgers’ trip to Taiwan in which both participated.

Part game photographer and part unofficial visual archivist, SooHoo and his team of photographers are responsible for documenting all aspects of the team’s activities, including games, practices, warm-ups and overall life in the Dodgers organization.

It all begins with the tone that SooHoo sets for himself and his team of photographers.  Over the past 24 years, SooHoo has created a unique dream job that is based on core principles of trust and mutual respect.  That trust has translated into a strong relationship with manager Joe Torre and his team which has resulted in exclusive access to their public and private moments – giving fans a unique opportunity to peek behind the curtain of a major league baseball team.

“It always begins in Spring Training, because [the players and coaches] see me here… they see me in the trenches every day,” explained SooHoo. 

Remarkably, there’s no one else like Jon SooHoo in all of Major League Baseball.  No other club spends as much time or resources as the Los Angeles Dodgers do in shooting what happens between and beyond the lines…especially with a goal of distributing that content directly to the fans on a daily basis through the Dodgers official Web site.

“We’re the ones who started this,” explained SooHoo.  “This is not something new to the Dodgers; we’ve always done a photo gallery.  We’re the only ones doing this day to day.  Other clubs may shoot [behind the scenes moments], but you don’t see it.”

What’s even more remarkable is that 2010 marks Jon SooHoo’s 25th as the official team photographer for the Dodgers.  That’s more than 4,300 games for those of you keeping score.  And he’s not slowing down.

SooHoo got his professional start doing what he loves – shooting sports while in college at USC.  Working for the Daily Trojan, he was shooting most of the men’s and women’s basketball games when both teams were playing their home games at the Sports Arena, which was also the home of the Los Angeles Clippers.

That’s when SooHoo met the man that would shape his professional career: NBA photographer Andy Bernstein.  Bernstein shot all of the Clippers games in both black & white and color and needed help splitting the workload.  After getting to know Jon from their hours together in the Sports Arena, he offered the young college student a job as a darkroom worker.  From then on, Jon processed Bernstein’s black & white images for all Clippers games, developing up to 500 prints per game at Bernstein’s Hollywood studio. 

Shortly thereafter, Bernstein landed the contract as the Dodgers’ official photographer.  However, Bernstein also had pre-existing commitments with the NBA in Europe, so he asked SooHoo to fill in and process all of the black & white images at Dodger Stadium for him as a sub-contractor.  When Bernstein and his lead photographer went their separate ways, the door opened for SooHoo to step up.

“I just filled right in.  I already had gear and knew what I was doing.  I knew the whole set-up.  So then I was shooting, processing and printing both the Dodgers and the NBA,” explained SooHoo. “It was pretty cool because I could take the back streets to the Forum in a heartbeat.  I could get to the Sports Arena in 10 different ways.  That was the heyday of sports photography when there were teams to shoot.  The Rams and Raiders were both in town.  The Clippers and Lakers were close enough by.  There were a good amount of magazines that were still up.  The Dodgers team job just fell in my lap, just like the whole thing fell in my lap.  The next thing I know, I’m married with three kids, and I’m here 25 years later.  It’s been a good ride.”

One of SooHoo’s staff photographer’s at the Daily Trojan was future All-Star pitcher Randy Johnson.  SooHoo recounted the story of how, as editor of the campus paper, he assigned Johnson to shoot what was supposed to be the last concert ever by the legendary rock band The Who.  A huge music fan, Johnson was excited about the opportunity and talked his way backstage.  “He geeked out,” said SooHoo.  “We still talk photography whenever I see him.  It’s a respectful relationship.  You cherish those…I do.”

A Los Angeles native, SooHoo grew up in Silverlake and was first was exposed to photography in an 8thgrade darkroom class.  “That was it,” he said.  It was then on to Marshall for high school.  Unfortunately for SooHoo, he discovered that the school did not have a photography class, instead offering a yearbook program as an alternative.  SooHoo wasn’t interested in shooting yearbook photos, and instead chose to work on his basketball game, while also running track.

Coming from a Trojan family, SooHoo grew up going to USC football games with his parents who had season tickets from before he was born.  “Someday I want to be down there,” SooHoo said as he reflected on his time at Trojan football games, noting there was more room on the sidelines than in the stands.  “Something I’d always dreamed about doing was shooting USC football.”

While SooHoo welcomed the advent of digital photography (he was actually processing color film, scanning the images and sending them out electronically to media outlets long before digital cameras came along), it also presented a huge challenge as he had more than a dozen years of color negatives, slides, and black & white images scattered throughout his office and home.

“It’s just made me feel like I’ll never catch up,” said SooHoo when discussing the huge inventory of negatives and photos that he still needs to transfer to digital.  “I didn’t shoot just shoot for the Dodgers and the NBA stuff, I had UPI as a client too, where I was shooting Raiders, Rams and the USFL back then.  It became very unmanageable.”

While SooHoo says he doesn’t have a favorite shot from his career, he does regret not having access to some of his older work, including shots he took of John Elway playing for Stanford and Marcus Allen playing for USC, as well as some of his NFL photos of the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys.

“I can’t find all the stuff I shot back in ’87, ’88 and ’89, other than what I’ve kept aside.  Some of that stuff would be pretty cool to have, like Joe Montana and Roger Craig.”

 “Whenever I go to SC and talk to any of the kids there, I tell them to keep their own external hard drive, load it up, don’t lose it, don’t let it get corrupted, but you’ve got to keep that because then 20 years down the road you won’t be doing what I’m doing and regretting not having it all.  But what can you do?”

After 25 years, SooHoo continues to strive to keep his content fresh, but more importantly, he tries to think of the bigger picture, including his role as the primary visual archivist of the Dodgers.

“I’ve had pretty much carte blanche to go into the locker room with my camera and shoot behind the scenes stuff, and that’s kept it fresh,” said SooHoo.  “Joe Torre’s kept it extremely fresh…he’s made it very easy.  So as I concentrate to get the stuff between the lines, I’m also really trying to think historically and to think beyond that, to get it outside the lines.  In the clubhouse, on the bus, on the plane, you name it.  Just not the stuff that everybody else does.  I try my best to be as independent as possible through the team, but [other photographers] do outstanding work, but they’re not going where I’m going.  I try to think of everything as historically as much as possible.  I think there’s a value to that: Manny [Ramirez] in the bathroom, brushing his hair.  Andre [Ethier] last year fixing his jersey in the locker room.  Casey Blake loosening up in the weight room with his bat in full whites.  There are no more historical [images] than what I’m getting right now.”

But it all goes back to trust and respect for his subjects.  “I still have integrity and believe that character matters,” said SooHoo.  That belief in integrity and character is something that was instilled in the Dodgers photographer early in his professional career.

“I learned it from Michael Zagaris, who is the team photographer for the Oakland A’s, but he was also the team photographer for the 49ers during the heyday.  I saw how he was doing it, what his approach was and how he had to blend into the wallpaper, just like I’m doing here.  Just keep your mouth shut and your head down and don’t stir up anything.  It’s not about me, it’s not about him, it’s about the team.”

When talking of his role as the Dodgers’ unofficial visual historian, SooHoo brings up legendary New York newspaper photographer Barney Stein as someone he tries to emulate.  Stein, an award-winning photographer, covered the Brooklyn Dodgers for 20 years beginning in 1937 and shares many similarities with SooHoo, but they also have some notable differences.

“Stein had one set of guys – which were pretty great guys.  We’ve had so many players go through here…just tell me how many players I’ve had in these 25 years?  I’m just trying to achieve as good a shot as possible that’s something different.  I’m always trying to be aware of what’s going on visually.”

Another role model for SooHoo is presidential photographer Pete Souza, the official photographer for President Obama and previously for President Reagan.

“I have so much respect for him, it’s not even funny.  I’ve idolized what he does.  He’s where I would want to be.  The closest thing I have is Joe Torre, and that’s pretty tremendous because nobody hates Joe Torre.  Even going to Taiwan with him was just phenomenal.  He’s got a presence that people just cling to.  It’s magic.  The Dodgers in general got the treatment over there, but Joe was the closest thing I’ve had to a presidential run.”

While SooHoo’s images have widely been heralded as seeming to capture the emotion of a particular moment in time, it’s not something he focuses on when shooting.  Instead, SooHoo relies on having his lens pointed in the right direction at the right time.

“I don’t put any real pressure on myself to come up with crazy stuff.  I just don’t want to miss anything. The emotion will come as you’re shooting.  You can’t plan it.  Either it happens or it doesn’t happen.  I’m not planning anything other than, if there’s a play at second, I’m moving my camera to second.  If there’s a play at home, I’ve got to turn and come home.  I’m aware that if there’s a runner on first, there might be a double play at second.  Any kind of little outfield line drive, I try and swing around as fast as I can.”

“As much as you see that looks good, there’s so much more that no one sees, because it’s out of focus, it’s the wrong timing, I’ve got a first base coach or umpire in my way or a player crossing my path.  Stuff happens all the time here and it’s just a matter of adjusting and having enough material to make it through the day.  What I pride myself on is getting a gallery out every night.”

Is there anything else SooHoo would rather be doing after 25 years than shooting the Dodgers?

“Sports have always been the passion, but I’d rather be playing basketball.  I’d rather be playing in the NBA,” SooHoo joked.  “But I’m better off where I am.  I’m happy as hell where I am.”

While the Dodgers organization is where his heart is, SooHoo clearly maintains a love for his beloved Trojans.  “I’ve always been shooting USC football since I was at school.  These last two years have been the first time I’ve been given the access like I’ve had with the Dodgers.  Pete [Carroll] gave me the green light and I was all over it.  I would hustle my way to get to games when there was no way I should have even been at those games.”

“Right after [the Dodgers] lost in Philly, I was at the USC – Oregon State game and I got a [two-page spread] in Sports Illustrated with a picture in the locker room of Pete and all the guys.  It was pretty exciting.  It’s just a different perspective outside the lines when I had the access that he gave me.  The intensity inside the locker room for football is just far beyond anything going on in a baseball clubhouse before a game.  They’re just so amped up.”

SooHoo also believes in doing the right thing.  To thank the players, coaches and managers for all of the support and access he receives, SooHoo went out of his way to create custom, hardcover books commemorating the 2009 Dodgers and the 2009 Trojans.  They’re beautiful works of art and chronicle the iconic and everyday moments from the past year.  “Last year, the guys took care of me, so I made each one of them a book,” SooHoo simply states.

That’s an even more incredible feat when you consider a typical day during the MLB season involves SooHoo dropping his kids off at school at 8:00 a.m. and then heading home for a few brief moments of work around the house.  He then arrives at Dodger Stadium by 10:00 a.m., where his day begins reading memory cards, uploading photos to the server and making discs and prints for key individuals.

In the early-afternoon, he begins getting his gear ready for that night’s game, lugging two or three camera with him depending on the night.  At 3:30 p.m., SooHoo is on the field shooting batting practice and pre-game warm-ups.  Once the game begins, the team’s official photographer is often found in either the first base or third base photo wells, shooting the action on the field.  He also routinely eats on the fly while making his way through the concourses, capturing fan reaction and the game from a different perspective, while patiently answering questions and posing for pictures with his fans.

“The key is not to be missing walk off situations, or monumental pitching moments like no-hitters.  You have to be conscientious of everything,” explained SooHoo.

After the game wraps up, SooHoo returns to his office where the real work begins, editing, archiving all of the images he shot, while transmitting that day’s photo gallery to all key stakeholders.  By the time he finally shuts off his computer, it’s not uncommon for the clock to read 1:30 a.m.

As SooHoo enters his 25thyear with the Los Angeles Dodgers, it’s impossible to not appreciate the thousands of visually stunning images he shoots throughout the course of a season, as well as the care he takes in forging the relationships which allow him to be in the right place at the right time.  In many ways, SooHoo’s images provide a visual bookend to the words of Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully.  While photographers are not elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame,  his tenure with the club and the diligence with which he approaches his craft make Jon SooHoo a revered part of the Dodger family.

Story by Chris Volk and Alex Volk

Next up: Shadowing SooHoo: A Day in th Life of the Photographer of the Los Angeles Dodgers

Photo Credit: Jon SooHoo/LA Dodgers 2010, Chris Volk/dodgerfan.net (we think it’s pretty obvious who shot what!)


Sights at Camelback Ranch

Today’s sold-out Dodgers-Cubs game at Camelback Ranch was pretty darn entertaining!  Chad Billingsley went four-plus innings, Manny went deep, Reed Johnson hit his own two-run blast, Rafael Furcal stole his first base of the spring and Blake DeWitt continued to hit well, going two for three.  Director Rob Reiner (a noted Dodgers fan) was also on hand with his son, as was the great Peter Gammons.

I took in the game from the first base line with a bunch of Cubs fans who seemed to make up about 50 percent of the crowd on hand.  Here are a few pics from yours truly.  Enjoy!

Furcals steals second base.

Billingsley opens the game for the Dodgers.

Matt Kemp congratulates Manny Ramirez after his two-run home run.

Reed Johnson celebrates his two-run blast in the 7th inning.

Peter Gammons chats with Greg Maddox before the game.

Alex and I will be at the Dodgers-Padres game on enemy territory in Peoria tomorrow night, so more to come on Friday!

Rest in Peace, Willie Davis

Former Dodgers center-fielder Willie Davis was found dead in his Glendale, CA home today.  He was 69.  According to reports from the LAPD in today’s Los Angeles Times, Davis appeared to have died of natural causes.

The Dodgers issued the following statement from Frank McCourt this afternoon:

“Willie Davis went from a local talent at Roosevelt High School to a World Champion center fielder for the Dodgers in just a few years and many of his records still stand today. He was beloved by generations of Dodger fans and remains one of the most talented players ever to wear the Dodger uniform. Having spent time with him over the past six years, I know how proud he was to have been a Dodger. He will surely be missed and our sincere thoughts are with his children during this difficult time.”

I think Steve Dilbeck’s blog post remembering the good, the bad and the expectations (placed on by fans and of himself) Willie Davis is really something, and worth a read by everyone who visits this blog.  A brief quote is below:

He was a remarkable athlete who did some remarkable things for the Dodgers. Yet somehow with Willie, it seemed less about what he accomplished and more about what he did not.……..

He couldn’t hit as well as Tommy Davis, steal like Maury Wills. Didn’t have the commanding presence of Sandy Koufax or Don Drysdale. He seemed more a role player on the great Dodgers teams of the ’60s, though his flashes of greatness only seemed to leave others yearning for more.

Willie was called up when he was only 20 and played 13 years with the Dodgers, 17 major-league seasons overall. And when he passed away Tuesday, he was still the Los Angeles Dodgers all-time leader in hits, extra-base hits, total bases, plate appearances and triples.

He had a deep voice, distinctive laugh. For a man others claimed was always in search of himself as a player, he gave off the appearance of easy-going happiness.

He won three Gold Gloves, stole 20 or more bases 13 times, still holds the L.A. Dodgers record for his 13-game hitting streak and was twice an All-Star.

And yet unfairly, he is almost remembered as much for the three errors he committed on consecutive plays in Game 2 of the 1966 World Series. For being Willie Davis, and not Willie Mays. For imagined sins of omission.


If guilty only of not being a superstar, he was still a unique star and special player. He died at age 69, and the only thing he didn’t give us enough of, was years.

Rest in peace, Willie Davis.

Photo Credit: WalterOMalley.com

Five Tweets with…Orel from the Sons of Steve Garvey

It’s the start of a new week, and that means a new installment of “Five Tweets with..”  As a refresher, each week we select one person from the world of Major League Baseball and then beg, bribe, cajole and/or twist their arm until they participate.  We ask them five questions, they tweet their responses back to us, and we post ‘em here.  The questions do not change, but how people interpret and answer them does.  Think of this as our way to learn a little more about the people that play, cover, work with, tweet about and cheer on professional baseball teams, with an emphasis on the Dodgers.

This week we’re psyched to have the witty Orel from the always irreverent Dodgers blog Sons of Steve Garvey and @sosgsosg participating.  The Sons keep it lighthearted and fun throughout the season, always looking for pop culture tie-ins and intelligent, humorous banter at every turn.  Their site is one of our favorites to check in at during a game, and theirs was the site that we first looked to when trying to figure out our place in the Dodgers blogging landscape.

Note: Keep in mind that Orel kept to the spirit of the project by answering his questions via Twitter, so he had to make do with the 140 character limit for each answer. 

Five Tweets with… Dodgers Blogger Orel from SonsOfSteveGarvey.com

1. What excites you the most about this season?

Kemp-Ethier-Manny 2-3-4. Healthy Furcal. Kershaw nominated for sainthood.

2. What is your biggest concern about this season?

Stagnation or injuries, or in Martin’s case, both. That the rotation falls apart. That the team becomes a sideshow.

3. What is your earliest baseball memory?

John Candelaria no-hitting the Dodgers http://bit.ly/9OFGiJ. He has been on my ON NOTICE list ever since.

4. What is your favorite baseball memory?

Gibson, of course. I was screaming and running around an empty dorm like an inmate freed from the asylum.

5. Why do you love the game?

Stadiums, hot dogs and the seventh-inning stretch. Robinson, Clemente and Ichiro. And yes, even Candelaria.


Should the Dodgers Trade for Catching Help?

Yes, Russell Martin is out for four to six weeks, with four of those weeks being during Spring Training.  But I don’t think the Dodgers should hit the panic and trade for a replacement catcher.  We’re talking about two weeks people!  Steve Dilbeck at the Los Angeles Times agrees:

“If that’s the length of his absence, making a trade seems unlikely and unwise. You don’t give up a young player to plug a two-week hole.

And, really, there is no catcher of significance left who’s a free agent. The only free-agent catcher of any renown is Paul Bako, and the Dodgers have already had that experience. He was a backup to Dioner Navarro in 2005.”

I’m with you, Steve.  Bako is no better than the young A.J. Ellis.  The Dodgers obviously feel comfortable with the kid (after all, they traded top catching prospect Carlos Santana for Casey Blake in 2008), with backup support from the 41 year-old Brad Ausmus.  Ausmus should be a fantastic influence on Ellis, while he tries to make the adjustment to being an everyday catcher at the big league level.  Here’s a little more on Ellisfrom Ken Gurnick:

Ellis, 28, was an 18th-round pick out of Austin Peay University in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft who has a .278 career Minor League batting average and more career walks than strikeouts.

He hit .314 in 90 games at Triple-A Albuquerque last year, leading the organization with a .438 on-base percentage. He had brief callups in 2008 and ’09.

Joe Torre is also on board with A.J. Ellis:

“I have no hesitation at all,” Torre said of catching Ellis, who has 12 games of Major League service and a .077 career batting average. “He handles a game well. He’s a tireless worker. Being a former catcher, I know how important the defensive end is. He’s made himself a good hitter, he’s a grinding type of guy. I’ve seen him enough to be comfortable with it.”

Here’s my real worry with this situation right now: I’m a little worried that Martin totally downplayed the abdomen issue when speaking to reporters the first time, calling it “not anything major.”  Yes, I’m encouraged that he thinks he’ll be back by opening day, but abdomen injuries like this are tricky and Martin has never had to deal with something like this on a professional level.

When I read quotes from Martin about his desire to continue to bulk up while resting his abdomen like, “I know my guns are going to be even bigger,” I worry that he’s not looking at potential causes for the injury (over-training) and potentially being naive when it comes to his recovery.

My opinion?  Take all the time you need, Russell.  If Martin doesn’t rest enough, comes back early and promptly gets hurt, the Dodgers are screwed and Martin may be battling through this thing for months, if not longer.  That’s another story, and one I would prefer to not think about right now.

Photo Credit: Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles Dodgers