September 17, 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!)

 

Comments

  1. Good Stuff!! That was really a good behind the scenes look at SooHoo. Good work!!

  2. Brian Lewis says:

    Congratulations Jon! Having known you since you were in grade school, when I could take you, in your backyard basketball court, to seeing you at Clipper games & Dodger games all these years, makes me proud to have known you all these years.
    It’s wonderful to see your work, something that brings you so much pleasure and it is expressed in your photography. Kudos.
    Keep it up, and it’s nice to know a legend.;-)

  3. Wow Jon, that says it all. What a fantastic story. I’m lucky to have shared the field with you at Jr. Dodgers Day! Your an incredible photographer and such a tremendous asset to the Dodgers!

  4. Excellent stuff. This is the article I always wished someone would write. Looking forward to Part Two!

  5. Great stuff! We love you Jon!

  6. Robin Lee-Ramirez says:

    Congratulations Jon! What a terrific story.

    I want to also thank you for all that you have done for the students of John Marshall High School (our Alma Mater). Sharing your vision, your expertise, and your words of wisdom with the students was remarkable. It was a great learning experience and I know that they appreciated all that you shared with them.

    I am honored and proud to say that you are my cousin! I know that our late Uncle Forrie would be thrilled to know he had a part in helping you become interested in photography.

    Keep up the great work! And of course, “Fight On”!
    Love you!

  7. Gloria Yuen says:

    Dear Jon:

    So pleased to have met you through this great article. I love your dedication and focus, your personal strength of character and the professional integrity that you give to your work. I love that you know who its about and your understanding of how your work plays out in each team’s and individual’s history and legacy. Little wonder that you have been so privileged and held in such high esteem by those in the game(s). As an enthusiastic sports fan myself, there’s nothing I appreciate more than a look at great shot on record.

    Congratulations on a successful career and all the best in your future.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] and Alex Volk’s story, of Dodgerfan.net fame, about official Dodger photographer Jon SooHoo, here and [...]