SB Nation

Lucas Jackson | August 1, 2013

Sporting Focus

Behind the Lens with Andrew Hancock

I'm a child of the 80s. I was raised in a rural town on the Louisiana-Arkansas border where we couldn't even get cable. The alternative was satellite television which was really expensive, ran through a giant spaceship of a dish, and required a degree in engineering to operate. My friend's parents did own a satellite but we never tampered with it, fearing their wrath. We'd grow bolder after learning Cinemax was out there in some distant galaxy, but that is another story. In a prosaic world of 3 television channels, one of the best Christmas presents I ever received was a subscription to Sports Illustrated.

SI was the gift that kept on giving, every week to be precise. The covers soon adorned the walls of my bedroom. Even though I loved the writing, the photographs were the real prize. I waited for the mailman in anticipation of those cover shots and the "Leading Off" photo just on the other side. At that time, I was a big fan of Magic Johnson and "Showtime," but Michael Jordan was the center of my sports universe. I went beyond tacking my Jordan SI covers to the wall and actually had them framed.

One day, the cable gods cast lines into the dusty earth, making SportsCenter my new fix for stats and highlights. Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann supplanted Peter Gammons and Dr. Z as my guides through the sporting world. By the late 90s, the internet had come, and the rest is history. The media evolution brought demand for instant reporting, putting traditional sports journalism in flux. Yet while much been made of the demise of print media, the importance of photography and the power of the still image remains. Why? Let's look to TV's anti-hero adman Don Draper for answers. In his pitch to Kodak for the "Carousel" slide projector Don noted that:

..technology is a glittering lure. But there's the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash, if they have a sentimental bond with the product.

Draper conveys the idea that the pictures themselves matter, not the new technology of the projector. Photographs can create a "twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone." Photographs are time machines, and can carry us back to a place where we knew we belonged, where we were winning, and where we knew we were loved.

Have you ever really thought about who was behind the lens for your favorite photographs? We at Good Bull Hunting had a serendipitous brush with the world of sports photography thanks to a video parody we made called "God Made a Farmer." This video spoofed a Dodge Super Bowl commercial, by connecting a sentimental voiceover about the Aggies to powerful still images. One of those images belonged to Texas A&M former student and professional sports photographer Andrew Hancock whose Johnny Manziel photo is on a regional cover of Sports Illustrated this week.

"When I moved over to Athletics earlier this year, one of the things we wanted to do was elevate the quality of our marketing materials. One of the primary ways to do this is through engaging, high-quality photography. Andrew Hancock certainly was well-suited to help us out as a result of his work with Sports Illustrated. In fact, his 2010 image of the 12th Man has become a cornerstone of our brand identity. And to top it off, he's an Aggie who understands where we are taking Texas A&M nationally" - Texas A&M Senior Associate Athletics Director for External Affairs Jason Cook

When we made the video, we thought a good faith effort to credit all of the photographers whose work we used would be sufficient. Unfortunately, we screwed that up pretty badly and felt a swift backlash from some of the photographers. In our haste to create something fun, we failed to consider that these images are the lifeblood for these photographers. Consequently, Andy was one of the more polite photographers we heard from... and he promptly invoiced us for our usage.

Andy and I were fraternity brothers while at A&M so I reached out to him on behalf of everyone at GBH to apologize. Andy was, of course, a gentleman. He explained his reasons for objecting to the use of the photograph, which included the not-so-minor fact that Texas A&M University had gone on to license the photo from him for university use. Andy feels it is not only his obligation to protect the image on his own behalf but on behalf of any client who has licensed an image as well. As fate would have it, Andy was on the verge of a photo shoot with Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel for 12th Man Magazine, and he invited Good Bull Hunting manager cuppycup and me to assist him on the shoot. We accepted. Quickly. Neither of us was passing up a chance to meet Johnny.

Sounds like fun, right? Ok... it was, but it was also a LOT of work. Andy was forthcoming about how he was going to "put us to work," but how much work could it be assisting a guy with a camera? Well, unbeknownst to us, these shoots not only require loads of planning and resources, they require a great deal of equipment and manpower.

Andy hired three assistants from around the country who traveled to College Station to assist him. Even with three assistants, Andy informed us that extra sets of hands would not go amiss. By the time we arrived at Kyle Field shortly after noon, Andy and his assistants had already unloaded ten or so crates of lighting, modifiers, stands and other photographic necessities that I will never fully understand. Andy related that the equipment he brought cost as much as a house. Oh, and they had also erected scaffolding on the Kyle Field warning track.

Andy explained that his time with Johnny would be very limited and that all the shots would have to be set up perfectly before the quarterback sensation arrived around 5:00 pm. The photo shoot involved four areas around the stadium. The most complex location was shot from underneath the scaffolding structure with Manziel posing atop a sheet of plexiglass.

At the time, I could not even visualize the image Andy was trying to create. Around 2:00, the plexiglass arrived; it was not what I expected. The plexiglass was an inch and a half thick and must have weighed close to 500 pounds. It took seven of us to lift it safely onto the scaffolding without scratching it. Any scratch could ruin the shot and cost Andy thousands of dollars, the cost of the plexiglass alone. Once the sheet was in place, we created a "black box" by lining the scaffolding with curtain cloth. We had an hour to spare after the setup was complete. Still, we could not exactly rest because the lighting towers required constant support to keep from being blown over by the wind. We had to hold them in place.

Johnny arrived ten minutes early which gave us some bonus time. He was accompanied by members of Texas A&M's Athletic Department, who had been escorting him from one media appointment to another all day. The shoot took place on an "off day" during spring practice and Johnny had already been interviewed by several media outlets including ESPN. Kirk Herbstreit would be on-hand to work in the booth for A&M's Maroon and White Spring Game. Despite a whirlwind day, Johnny was polite and accommodating. He struck me as a bit shy.

By now, Andy was in the zone. He was a consummate professional and never gave any indication that he was an A&M alum or an unabashed fan. It was time to work. Andy communicated his ideas for the primary shot to Johnny and we all held our breath as the Heisman Trophy winner nimbly ascended the scaffolding wearing new Adidas cleats that Andy had specially modified for the shoot.

I began to grasp the concept of the shot more fully after Andy began snapping pictures. Andy by now had created a bit of rapport with Johnny, allowing him to request tweaks to his stance and the position of logos on the football. Of course, Johnny had a lot of practice doing the Heisman pose and made it look easier than we did during test runs. Occasionally, Andy would pause to show Johnny shots on the camera, making him comfortable that the final photos would be incredible.

After the primary shot was complete, we were quickly on the move to other locations. The lighting towers and their power packs had to come with us. This effort took all of us laypeople, who would awkwardly turtlewalk the equipment 50 yards to the end zone for another shot, supervised and assisted by Andy's outstanding assistants. We really enjoyed working with one of Andy's assistants, Paul Sadler, a graphic designer for Purdue Athletics who has assisted Andy on some of his Sports Illustrated assignments before.

The remaining shots went off without a hitch. As the shoot wound down, Andy's mood began to lighten. He explained that the major pressure was getting all of the shots done in time, and now he had to hope that the shots lived up to his vision.

Everything was done in twenty minutes thanks to Andy's preparation and skill. There were no private photos or autograph requests; it was strictly by the book. Andy, unlike us, was completely at home working with a celebrity.

After the shoot was finished we all met up to relax over dinner and beers. Later, Andy agreed to answer a few questions for Good Bull Hunting.

A lot of Aggies are familiar with your now famous shot of the 12th Man. How does it feel to have completely captured the essence of a moment like that?

It is surreal, exciting and a major sense of pride for me. That game was unassigned by the magazine that week. I knew there was a photo to be made, a really special photo that I felt I could make so I told my college football editor that I was going. She said that if I get something good, send it in for a possible Leading Off. I walked around the field five times that night before the start of the game to find the right place to get that shot. Then as the game got started, everything came together and I knew at that point I had something special. I got back to Houston about 4 a.m. and emailed the office and said I had something they had to see. The rest is history and now that photo is getting great use by the university and stands tall in the Memorial Student Center. I have people that go to campus and photograph themselves with it in the background and when I have been in town and at the MSC, I see visitors to campus and students getting their picture taken in front of that. For me that is just incredible. Many have said that it is the best photo that has been taken in Kyle Field and of the 12th Man and for me that is a huge honor.

In making the picture (I had been thinking about it for a week and how to make something completely different), I knew right away that I had something when I saw it on the back of the camera. After that moment I knew I had made one of the best photos so far in my career and after that, I was on a roll that game...just kept making great picture after great picture. Like an athlete, it feels incredible when you are in a groove like that and everything goes your way. However, I am still taken aback by the impact it has had at A&M and am blown away by the interest it has gotten and continues to get. I still grin ear to ear when I think about it and see people enjoying the photo.

How did you go from drinking beer with me on Northgate as an undergrad at Texas A&M to world renowned photographer?

What a crazy, strange, odd, stressful and absolutely exciting journey it has been since those days...and there were many days...we shared on Northgate!

For me, the journey began just before graduation when I accepted a photographer/writer position at a very small paper in Indiana. As a result of all those days on Northgate, I didn't apply myself as much as I should have when it came to class and internships and instead was very studious in the "other education." However, when I arrived in Indiana and started working, I began to realize I had some potential and began to really harness my work ethic. Very soon I was working 45-55 hours a week at the paper and then working another 20 on my own just to shoot projects and develop. I learned the value and importance of work ethic early on and just being relentless in the pursuit of goals...and I set them very high and continue to do so. Every time I would reach a goal, I would set more of them and at much higher levels which keeps me from settling and keeps me from being satisfied with good enough. As a result, after only four years in the industry (and only two and a half shooting full time) I got my first assignment from Sports Illustrated which was followed by my first SI cover less than a year later.

For me, that first SI cover remains a highlight of my career. Then again, any SI cover is an equally significant highlight. SI is the pinnacle of sports photography and there is no greater place for a photograph to be than on the cover. It is also one of the most challenging feats to accomplish in all of sports photography. Since that first cover, I have been fortunate to follow it up with two others before the Johnny Manziel cover this week: one for a story on the Detroit Tigers and the impact of the team on the city and another for a story on the Honey Badger, Tyrann Mathieu.

Manziel-plexi

The photos you took of Johnny Manziel for 12th Man Magazine are amazing. Explain to our readers some of the concepts for that particular shoot?

The Manziel shoot was a trip. I had an idea of something that I wanted to do...which was to show the Heisman pose from below. It was something that I had never seen done with a Heisman winner. I reached out to the 12th Man Foundation with an idea and we were able to make it happen. It was one of the more technically challenging portrait shoots I had done. In order to pull the shoot off, I knew I was going to need to really bring everything and the kitchen sink in regards to equipment and that is before we even start talking about how exactly I was going to photograph the pose from below. To do that, I purchased a 5' x 8' foot piece of plexiglass that was an inch and a half thick. It was an absolute beast weighing in at around 500-600 pounds. In order to elevate the plexi to a proper level, we had it spanning across two six foot tall sections of scaffolding, all secured in place, and a black box built below that I would shoot from to eliminate glare and reflection on the bottom of the plexi.

What were some of the challenges presented by that idea?

To pull it off I had to bring in a former Sports Illustrated lighting tech and good friend Will Rutledge who had a good bit of experience on plexi shoots. Also joining me were Paul Sadler who came in from Indiana and Kelly Samia who came in from Boston. Having you and cuppycup on hand were crucial as well because once I am in the box and shooting, I needed as many hands as possible available to help make adjustments. Matt Watson, head equipment manager for the A&M Football team scrambled to have Johnny's uniform ready to go and had a pair of new cleats shipped ahead of time so I could modify the cleats for better traction on the plexiglass. The worst thing would be for something to happen to Johnny on the shoot! While Matt was unable to make the shoot, he did send a couple of his @TAMUEquipment guys, Michael Kenjura and Chase Caldwell to lend a hand as well. The big wrinkle in everything? We were only going to get Johnny for 20 minutes so we had to make the most of it. And because I brought almost all of my lighting equipment, we were able to stretch it out and set up for a couple other portrait scenarios as well. We arrived a little before 10 a.m. and were busy all day until the shoot time of 5 p.m.

There are always plenty of challenges that arise during a shoot. For this one, we were dealing with a massive amount of equipment to pull everything off. Stress includes everything from shipping the gear to getting the plexi and the scaffolding delivered and there are always trips (by an assistant) to a hardware store to pick up odds and ends when I think of a better way to do something or if there is something we ran out of during the course of the day. Managing a crew of assistants can be challenging but I tend to be really careful about how I select assistants, especially those who I haven't worked with before, to make everything run as smoothly as possible. Safety is something that is of the highest importance on any shoot and especially a shoot like this. That is why I was able to get a pair of cleats, have them modified and then once everything arrived and was on set, we were able to have everything properly and safely secured to ensure the safety of Johnny, me, and the crew. In setting up and preparing, I realized that I would really want the stadium lights on for a couple of the shoots that I wanted to do. Fortunately for me, Alan Cannon is an absolutely top notch Sports Information Director for the athletic department and made the calls to get the lights turned on right before the shoot. Having those lights on was crucial for a couple of the shots and they look fantastic as a result. Brad Marquardt who was also on hand for Sports Information helped to make sure everything went smoothly as well and we had everything we needed.

Beyond that, some athletes are very difficult to work with and that can be a major challenge. Fortunately for us, Johnny was an absolute pro and did everything we needed him to do. I wasn't sure what to expect in working with him in preparing for the shoot. I found him to be quiet and reserved but he was exceptionally polite and professional. Everything was answered with a yes sir or no sir and he was one of the most respectful athletes I have had the opportunity to work with.

Above all else, the big challenge with a shoot like this is to be as creative as possible to make iconic shots that people will look to and look at for many years to come...to make the shots unlike anything that has been done before. In those 20 minutes we were working with him we made five completely different portrait shoots and everyone on hand helped me to pull it off seamlessly. In working with high profile athletes, you often get very little time and my editors (especially those at SI) have high expectations for a variety of shots and I strive to set that as a minimum regardless of the client I am working for. The end result was some really sharp photos and great display within 12th Man Magazine and now in Sports Illustrated as well with this week's regional cover and the prominent inside display of two other portraits.

You did some shoots of some other A&M players too. When should we look for those photos?

Indeed. The day after the Manziel shoot, we did Mike Evans and Jake Matthews. Be on the lookout for those this fall in 12th Man Magazine. As for the recent promotional portraits I have done for athletics, those are starting to appear here and there on season tickets, media guides, posters and you will see even more once all the sports get going in full swing.

What's it like working with Aggie Athletics?

The images from the Manziel shoot were very well received and not too long after that I was contacted by the athletic department to inquire about my interest in doing the promotional portraits for the various teams this coming year and it was an opportunity I quickly embraced. Texas A&M's athletic department from the very top to the very bottom is top notch; I would argue that it is one of the very best in the country. The opportunity to work for such a talented and nice group made everything all the more special to me. Great people all around. I was very pleased that they looked to me to help create some images unlike what had been done in the past and really work to push the visual brand of athletics to the top of the country. It is my goal to do everything in my power to make sure that happens. As an Aggie I also feel that I have a little bit more invested on an emotional aspect in doing my work for the department; much in the same way that I have extra pride in my 12th Man photo over many of the others in my portfolio. I want the photos I create and products created with them to be the best in the SEC and the best in the country.

Who are the athletes you enjoyed working with the most?

I have been fortunate and unfortunate (in a few cases) to work with athletes at all levels. Most are great to work with, a few were exceptional to work with...and there are a few that are abysmal to work with. Most athletes have fun with it and are game to do anything I ask of them. Guys like Larry Fitzgerald, Peyton Manning, Gordon Hayward, David Boudia, Ernie Sims, Baron Batch, Zach Johnson and Billy Horschel were all exceptional. The best guys get invested in the shoot because they know the more they put into it, the better they will look and the better the end photograph. There are definitely guys that will just coast through the shoot and not get real involved and it shows. A big challenge of my job is trying to break down some of those walls and make them comfortable in order to make the shoot fun. It doesn't always work, but that is the goal. As for the guys who were absolute pains to work with, we will have to save that conversation for Northgate!

Do any stories from different photo shoots stand out in your mind?

That is a hard question to answer. Too many to choose from for a variety of reasons. One I would have to mention would be a story about Tiger Woods. Everyone knows how straightforward and focused he is when he is on the course. His interaction with the crowd is minimal at best. Unless someone distracts him that is and then you get the business end of his ire and that isn't a good place to be. He is intense on the course.

During the PGA Championship he played himself into contention and was within striking distance to start the final round. I was shooting the tournament for Sports Illustrated and was tasked to follow him during the final round. I followed Rory McIlroy during the third round the day before (where he really won the tournament). Tiger started the front nine in decent shape but his putter began to give him trouble. On the third hole he was in position to get back in the thick of things. At the green, there was a developmentally disabled young fan. He was having trouble staying quiet and calm though at no fault of his own. Tiger was his favorite player and he was very excited. When Tiger went to putt, you could easily hear the boy as he was at the front of the rope . Tiger missed his putt, and almost missed the next putt to tap in to finish the hole. He was visibly frustrated. As he walked to the next tee, he had to walk by the boy and his family and he did just that...walked by him. Then as I was set to follow to the tee, Tiger stopped, walked back to the boy, signed his gloves, gave him the ball he was using, thanked him for the support and for coming out to watch. With all the stories you hear about Tiger, you didn't hear about that one and that is a shame. He earned a tremendous amount of respect from me that day (not like he needs it or cares) but it was an incredibly special moment. It didn't make a great photo or even a good photo but it was the most special moment that I witnessed at the PGA championship.

Aside from Kyle Field, what are your favorite shots and places to shoot?

I do a lot of college basketball and that is great fun for me because one of my specialties is remote cameras. During basketball I will have strobes mounted in the catwalk and remote cameras mounted in just about every place I can think of...at least in those places that the arena will allow as each arena is different. The photo of the shadows in the lane during the Indiana vs Ohio State game is one of my favorite shots as is the overhead shot of Victor Oladipo coming out during introductions. Just like I love the cathedrals of football, I love the cathedrals of basketball and Assembly Hall at Indiana and Cameron Indoor at Duke are beyond incredible. Love shooting at each of those places...college basketball just doesn't get any better than those two arenas.

I also do a lot of horse racing photography and the Kentucky Derby is one of my favorite events to cover each year. Great photos everywhere you look. Beyond that, I end up covering the Detroit Tigers fairly often because of my location. Comerica is a great place to shoot a game, and getting to cover Miguel Cabrera has been pretty special. It is a lot of fun to cover athletes that are just so far above everyone else and you can see it in the photos. Everything from Cabrera in his swing to Tiger Woods in his swing to the way LeBron can take over a game. I saw that same thing during the Florida game last season not only with the entire team but in Manziel. At one point during the Florida game I went up to the top of the scoreboard and shot from there. From that vantage point it was remarkable to watch how he conducted that offense and led a drive down the field...in his first game!

What's life like for a professional photographer?

Crazy, busy, stressful, hard, challenging and more fun than I can put into words. While there is a tremendous amount of stress, a lot of it is self induced and comes from me pushing and challenging myself. I don't ever stop working. To do it at this level, it takes a complete commitment. I have to explain that it isn't a job for me, it is a life and I can't stop thinking about photographs. I see one everywhere I look. It is all consuming. Even when I am at home and not on the road, I have to work hard to unplug while spending time with my wife and baby daughter. Even then I usually pick up a camera to take photos to capture those moments. When I am home, I am all theirs and they deserve that because I travel constantly. You have to be in frequent communication with editors and clients and designers, have to tend to social media, market yourself, keep grips on the business side of things and manage a team of assistants and coordinate travel and equipment logistics. All the while learning, researching and challenging yourself. The days are incredibly long. For instance, on a full basketball day with a night start, I might work a 20-22 hour day.

It is also physically demanding. The gear is heavy and I have a lot of it and if you are not in shape, it can come at significant physical expense. At the PGA Championship at Kiawah last year, it was brutally hot and the course was two and a half miles from one end to the next and much of it over sand dunes.

All that said, I love most every minute of it. I have gotten to photograph some incredible things in my career and am very anxious to see what lies ahead. I love creating images that capture people's attention, make them think, make them smile and inspire.

How difficult is it to protect your copyrights given that we live in the age of the internet now?

It is incredibly hard and something you have to be firm about protecting. In the digital age, everyone thinks that photos are free because they are digital and they can share them. That simply isn't the case. Just because an image is digital or on the web does not mean that it is devoid of value.

When someone takes a photo from a site and uses it on their site, in a story, in a video, on social media all without authorization by the photographer...it is stealing. It is theft and violation of copyright; even if it is on a small blog or a twitter background. Many think that just by giving credit to the photographer, that makes it all ok and clears them from any legal ramifications and that couldn't be further from the truth. That just makes it easier to identify the person who stole the photo. I have to communicate to those who don't understand this notion that while we appreciate your efforts to give credit for the photo, my bank doesn't recognize that "credit" as having any financial value. My time spent working has value. My education was expensive. My gear is expensive. Travel is expensive. Paying assistants and operating a business is expensive. Beyond all that, creativity has value...great value. You put all that together and there is a lot at work and a lot of money involved in making a single photo.

It is an uphill challenge in trying to explain to others that images have great value and you are not clear from the legal consequences simply because a site does not generate revenue. This was something I also had to learn myself after I graduated from A&M ten years ago. I quickly and immediately came to this realization and then everything that all the record companies had been screaming all those years about Napster began to make sense. After that, I made sure I purchased every song I ever wanted!

Intellectual property has value, great value. It is important that people remember that. It is time consuming to police the use and distribution of my images, but it has to be done not only for the benefit of the value of a particular picture but for all my photos.

Andy, you've got a great story. You followed your dreams and love your work. What advice do you have for any other aspiring photographers and dreamers?

I was a journalism major and just a few weeks after graduation, the University announced that the major was being dissolved. I didn't feel that our major got the respect it needed and deserved. We produced some damn great journalists and some damn great photographers that have gone on to do great things. Journalism can be a very tough field and at many levels it doesn't pay well but it can be incredibly rewarding in other ways. At the highest levels, it can be incredibly lucrative but most won't ever get to that point. It all depends on how focused and driven you are. Work ethic is paramount and will help to set you apart. My advice to anyone, whether they are an aspiring photographer or a recent grad heading into a different field...learn lessons from everything you do. Learn from what you do right and what you do wrong. Don't take anything for granted and don't settle. Do what you love and push yourself as hard as you can. Carry that Aggie Code of Honor with you in everything that you do and you will be better for it. The world needs more great people and more integrity, and it needs more people who are passionate about what they do and want to do great things.

Work hard, play hard and go do it.

Producer/Editor: cuppycup | Designer: Luke Zimmermann | Design Consultant: Josh Laincz
Photos: Andrew Hancock

About the Author

Coolfranluke

Lucas Jackson (pseudonym) is a recent graduate of the Louisiana State University Law Center and lives in Shreveport, Louisiana. A member of the Fightin' Texas Aggie Class of 2000, he also has an MBA in finance from Texas Christian University. Born and raised in the Ark/La/Miss portion of the Mississippi Delta, he enjoys Texas A&M athletics, guitar music, and soul food.

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