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.
Usain Bolt crouches over a makeshift reflecting pool that Robert Beck constructed from plywood, thick sheets of black plastic, a swatch of indoor-outdoor carpet (to mimic the feel of a track) and an inch of water. To help cajole the Jamaican athlete and “fastest man in the world” into what turned out to be a difficult-to-hold pose, Beck played his favorite style of reggae music.
Surfing superstar Kelly Slater is seen frozen in motion – 10 times – during a 2014 contest at Trestles, along San Onofre State Beach. Multi-exposure photos are “a good way to show the complete effort of an athlete during a maneuver,” Beck says. “Here, I’m showing how far Kelly travels during an aerial. He’s not just going up and down and falling. He’s traveling across and above the wave. It’s quite a difficult maneuver to complete.”
No, that isn’t a blanket of snow that golfer Jordan Spieth is playing on at the 2015 Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia. The picture was snapped with an infrared camera, producing what Beck calls “a dreamy black-and-white effect.” It’s one in a series of dramatic infrared photos he took at the event. “At Sports Illustrated, we can experiment,” he says.
Shot with a macro lens and illuminated solely by a hotel window, this “interesting character study of Kobe Bryant without all his basketball trappings” was taken after a media event to promote the Lakers star’s Showtime documentary.
Beck’s most famous photo captures Brandi Chastain’s victory celebration after her history-making penalty kick at the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup final in Pasadena. Years later, she told him, “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.”
This Sports Illustrated cover shot of teen snowboarding sensation Chloe Kim and her miniature Australian shepherd was taken after Kim won a gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. “The web went crazy with that image,” Beck says.
At a high-profile 2012 match, boxer Juan Manuel Marquez delivers a crushing knockout punch to Manny Pacquiao in round six at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. After Pacquiao collapsed to the ground, “I thought he was dead,” Beck recalls. “His wife and family were seated behind me. I think his wife feared the worst as well. It was the perfect punch.”
The original idea was to shoot Brazilian soccer king Neymar playing a piano. “But he was not quite the musician we’d been led to believe,” Beck says. While workers dismantled the set and Beck pondered a plan B, Neymar began kicking a ball around the studio. “So I started taking pictures, and this was one of them,” the photographer says.
Originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of UCI Magazine.