You may not recognize his name, but you’ve probably seen Robert Beck’s work – particularly a photo of soccer star Brandi Chastain that went viral before going viral was a thing.
For more than three decades, Beck, a 1977 UCI history alumnus, has been one of the nation’s top sports photographers, a career he fell into almost accidentally while working as a middle school teacher and football coach.
To earn some extra cash while substitute teaching in San Diego, “I borrowed my dad’s camera and started doing some surf photography,” he recalls. That led to gigs with surfing magazines, a stock photo agency and, eventually, Sports Illustrated.
Below, Beck shares the stories behind six of his favorite shots.
When San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds belted his record-breaking 756th career home run in 2007, Beck’s wide-angle photo captured the ball, the batter and a blazing camera flash. “Maybe I’m reading too much into it,” Beck says, “but that flash is kind of an asterisk on the hit [for Bonds’ alleged PED use].”
Beck’s most famous photo – of Chastain’s victory celebration at the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup final in Pasadena – was a bit of a fluke. “Lots of photographers have that picture, but nobody has it from that angle,” says Beck, who had wandered to a spot directly behind the net, not realizing it was off-limits. “I was in the wrong place at the right time,” he says. A few years later, when he met Chastain in Oakland and introduced himself, “she jumped into my arms, screaming and almost crying,” Beck recalls. “I thought, ‘This is kind of weird,’ but she said, ‘You don’t understand what that picture meant to thousands of little girls across the country. It conveyed that they could play sports and be on the cover of Sports Illustrated.’” Beck says Chastain’s comment “changed the way I look at photos and even how I shoot.” Before that, he says, “I only thought of a picture in terms of composition, not in terms of how it might affect someone’s life.”
No, that isn’t snow that tiny Jordan Spieth is golfing on. The picture was snapped in Augusta, Georgia, with an infrared camera, producing what Beck calls “a dreamy black-and-white effect.” When asked what inspired his infrared golf series, the shutterbug says, “Sometimes you’ve gotta find something that sets you apart.”
In this portrait, Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt crouches over a makeshift reflecting pool that Beck constructed from plywood, thick sheets of black plastic, a swath of indoor-outdoor carpet (to simulate the feel of a track) and an inch of water. To help coax the Jamaican athlete into what turned out to be a difficult-to-hold pose, Beck played his favorite style of reggae music and fed him Popeye’s chicken. (Bolt wasn’t interested in the catered salad and fruit that had been ordered for him.)
The original plan was to shoot video and photos of Brazilian soccer king Neymar playing a piano. “But he was not quite the musician we’d been led to believe,” Beck says. “He was also very shy in front of the camera.” Luckily, while workers dismantled the set and Beck tried to figure out a Plan B, Neymar began gently kicking the ball around the studio. “So I started taking pictures, and this was one of them,” the photographer says.
This “interesting character study of Kobe Bryant without all his basketball trappings” was taken after a Beverly Hills Hotel media event to promote the Lakers star’s Showtime documentary. Although Beck brought various lights for the portrait, he wound up using this close-up, illuminated solely by a hotel window, he says.