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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 12 JULY 2010 — As a magazine, Sports Illustrated lives on articles and photographs of professional athletes at play; as a pop-culture monument, it lives by its annual Swimsuit Issue. Begun in 1964 as a few pages to catch the eye during the midwinter sports lull, the swimsuit issue is now a cover-to-cover display of beautiful young women in maillots, bikinis, monokinis and sometimes just body paint, cavorting on exotic beaches around the world. It may have precious little to do with sports, and it has been criticized as demeaning and trivializing, but when you consider that, all the rest of the year, the magazine’s main mission is to chronicle in words and images the exploits of grown men who chase balls around fields, those of us who would rather stare at beautiful young women wearing precious little can hardly agree that the swimsuit issue is a come down. The Swimsuit Issue has launched the careers of new models and made goddesses of experienced ones. (Vogue and Elle are about the clothes; no one who reads Sports Illustrated cares who designed the bikini as long as Bar Refaeli is shown removing it.) The Swimsuit Issue has given men and women common ground for conversation and common cause for debate on sexuality, identity and beauty. It probably was the primary reason that the word swimsuit largely replaced bathing suit in written and spoken English. That’s no small contribution from a sports weekly gone off message.

Tyra Banks
© Walter Iooss, Sports Ilustrated Swimsuit Heaven
Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated Group Books, Time Inc.

In its work-a-day issues, Sports Illustrated maintains high standards for sports writing — one of the few forms of journalism that can rise to the level of literature. It is also committed to providing the best sports photography that can be made, and it has been quite successful in doing just that. Sports photography is a specialized discipline that is much harder to do than it looks.  True, the photographer generally knows what to expect; and all sports are played within a confined or plotted space of one kind or another, so the photographer has a decent idea of where to find what he is expecting.  But the equipment is typically some of the biggest and most cumbersome available, and true artistry is elusive. Success comes only to those who can capture, in a few key seconds from among hours of play, not only the spirit of the game and the decisive intervention of superior athletic achievement, but the full measure of what it means to win and to lose. Photographing pretty women on beaches is a different business altogether: teams of assistants prepare the model, the set and the equipment, and the odd spontaneous setup notwithstanding, everything is as organized as for an official presidential portrait. And the subject is so unquestionably photogenic, if you blow it, you have only yourself to blame — and everyone else involved will do likewise.

Ashley Richardson
© Walter Iooss, Sports Ilustrated Swimsuit Heaven
Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated Group Books, Time Inc.

It is a tribute to the skill the Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss that he can do both forms of photography for the magazine. A collection of his Swimsuit Issue photos has recently been published as a coffee table book, Heaven (Sports Illustrated Books, 272 pages). It was Iooss who, in 1977, took the picture of Cheryl Tiegs in a fishnet bathing suit — perhaps the most memorable photograph ever to appear in the magazine. The image leads off the book, preceded by a few lines of introductory text by Jimmy Buffet and a portrait of Ioos at work, chest deep in a swimming pool.

Like the Buffet introduction, words are used sparely in the book, but to Iooss’ credit, he employs much of the limited space allocated to text to highlight the individuality of his models. There is a touch of grace in that approach. Pretty women, like pretty beaches, tend to look alike. Modeling is so rewarding that it is reasonable to assume that most young women who can do it are in fact doing it.  It is therefore also reasonable to assume that the Sports Illustrated models, being at the top of their profession, are probably what they are commonly thought to be: the rarest and finest personifications of an ideal of feminine beauty. The whole point about obtaining an ideal is that variation is neither needed nor particularly welcome. (As every illustrator of graphic novels knows, to draw the pretty young things, you give them all small chins, puffy lips, straight noses, girlish eyes and high foreheads; then you provide each with different hair because otherwise they can be hard to tell apart.)  But just because you are beautiful and either famous or on the brink of becoming famous doesn't mean you are cast from a perfect mold — even if you have been done up by experts to appear that way.

Cheryl Tiegs
© Walter Iooss, Sports Ilustrated Swimsuit Heaven
Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated Group Books, Time Inc.

What Iooss shares are his memories of the models as people, not just as faces and bodies. About his first meeting with Cheryl Tiegs, in Mexico, he reports, "She was gorgeous. She said hello when she passed me for the first time and my jaw just dropped. She took my fingers, closed my mouth and said, ‘Best to close your mouth when you meet people.’ I was gaga."  On the model Ashley Richardson (photographed for the 1990 issue): "I remember her saying, ‘I took four years of Spanish and I know one word: Hola.’ That’s classic Ashley." As for this year’s cover girl, Brooklyn Decker, Ioos believes that, "If she were ugly, you would still love her."

Iooss’ commentary may not be consistently articulate, but you believe that he is sincere in his appreciation for his models. Perhaps that is the secret of why his pictures are so engaging: he clearly not only likes what he does but also the women who serve as his main collaborators.

As for the images themselves: are they great art?  Whatever the photographer’s talents, the limitations of convention for what is known in the trade as glamour photography have prevented that. The photographs are, however, pearls of their own genre, so if you like beautiful young women, you’ll find Heaven a page turner.

Title image: Brooklyn Decker (detail)
© Walter Iooss, Sports Ilustrated Swimsuit Heaven
Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated Group Books, Time Inc.


Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Heaven
By Walter Iooss
Hardcover: 256 pages
Sports Illustrated (May 2010)
ISBN-10: 1603201165
ISBN-13: 978-1603201162

Alan Behr practices intellectual-property law at the New York office of Alston & Bird LLP.  A member of l’Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art, Mr. Behr last wrote on the Museum of Modern Art's retrospective Henri Cartier-Bresson: the Modern Century for Culturekiosque.

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