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Now that the 2012 London Olympics are right around the corner, I figured, I’d unbox a few photos of Michael Phelps I made back in 2009 for The New York Times.
And if you wanna see even more portraits of Michael Phelps, pictures of him working out and shots of his coach Bob Bowman, click here for my original blog post, and here for my online, photoshelter, archive gallery.
Oh! and Time.com licensed the photo from the NYTs/Redux (not me. dang!) for The 2012 Time 100 Poll discussing his retirement after competing in London.
People usually ask me two things when I bring up this shoot:
1.) “Did you smoke up with him?”
…to which I roll my eyes.
2.) “Is he a nice guy?”
To that I say, Yes. He was a really nice guy.
…at least to me.
…The guy making pictures of him for the New York Times.
To be fair, he didn’t come across as a guy who was faking it for the camera. I’m a stranger. He’s a stranger. He’s an international sports icon (intimidating), and I’m charged with making his picture for one of the most respected news organizations in the world (intimidating). The argument could be made, we’re on a pretty even playing field. …even though, we aren’t. hahaha.
As I’ve mentioned before I like to connect with my subjects. I don’t like to talk to celebrities about their trivia — the exception being Kal Penn. I know there’s more to them than what they do for a living — than what a simple Wikipedia scan will find. Truthfully, Michael Phelps the guy was way more interesting to me than Michael Phelps the Olympic Gold Medal swimmer. I’m drawn to people’s nuances — all the little things that make them tick. After all, he’s a young twenty-something guy who has the job of being the fastest human in the water, defending that role, AND having the burden of being an international role model. And when he wants to decompress and act like a normal twenty-something guy, all eyes are still on him. I’m not here to defend anything he’s done. I’m not here to condemn, either. But I also wasn’t interested in talking to him about swimming or any of the trouble he’s gotten in, either. Like with all my subjects I wanted to find common ground. …which was physically hard — because he was in water for half the shoot.
I spent most of the morning with a long lens, making a portrait of him across the pool. We had to combine the portrait & interview. Not a big deal. Truthfully I sometimes like it when the subject is allowed to be distracted from having their portrait made — particularly if the story has an emotional bend to it. That way I can set up a lit stage and focus on photographing their non-verbals.
After the portrait I photographed him training in the water. Neither gave me much of an opportunity to talk to him.
But when he and the rest of the team started lifting weights, I got to get in there. I still had no idea what to say to the guy, but knew I needed something. I could feel myself becoming the creepy photographer in the corner. I hate changing into that guy. And then I noticed his rad shoes! YESSSS!!! Michael Phelps was working out in a pair of classic Reebok pumps!
I was like,”Dude! those shoes are rad! I haven’t seen a pair of those in forever.”
He smiled big, and we talked about them for like a quick second. Then he had to get back to his workout. The awkwardness eased a bunch. …I think for both of us. He kept working out, I kept making pictures.
That’s a weight vest he wore while doing pull ups.