You may not recognize his name, but you’veprobably seen Robert Beck’s work – particularly a photo of soccer standout Brandi Chastain that went viral before going viral became a thing and inspired countless young girls.
For more than three decades, the 1977 UCI history alumnus has been one of the nation’s premier sports photographers, a career he fell into almost accidentally while working as a middle school teacher and football coach.
Beck’s road to shutterbug stardom began in the early 1980s, a few years after he had earned a teaching credential at UCI. To pick up some extra cash while substitute teaching in San Diego, he borrowed his dad’s Canon AE-1 Program camera and started shooting high school sports, selling the prints to parents and students. He soon had enough money to buy his own camera and – because he was a surfer – a waterproof housing so he could photograph fellow wave riders.
The ocean action pictures led to gigs with surfing magazines, a stock photo agency and, eventually, Sports Illustrated.
Since then, Beck has shot 10 Super Bowls; a half-dozen Olympics; and countless games, matches and athletic achievements, such as Wayne Gretzky’s record-breaking 802nd hockey goal. He has also developed a reputation for compelling portraits. Using such props as Fruity Pebbles cereal, underwater furniture, Navy jets and a herd of sheep, he has coaxed intriguing poses out of everyone from skateboarder Tony Hawk and pitcher Madison Bumgarner to hurdler Lolo Jones and Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt.
To date, Beck’s portfolio includes more than 150 cover photos for Sports Illustrated.
Curiously, the South Pasadena native has had little formal training. Although he took a photography class in high school and spent his first year at UCI as an art major, Beck’s skills are essentially self-taught. “I just have an eye for composition,” he explains. And for offbeat photographic equipment. He occasionally snaps pictures with Polaroid, Russian and even infrared cameras, the last producing what he calls “a dreamy black-and-white effect.”
“Sometimes you’ve gotta find something that sets you apart,” Beck says.
Originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of UCI Magazine.