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Seattle Times photographers offer a glimpse into what inspires their best visual reporting.

August 23, 2014 at 7:02 PM

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Behind the Byline | Coach Petersen

At the beginning of every major sports cycle, The Seattle Times will publish either a special section, or commit significant space on a single day to that sport. Football, basketball, baseball; we've done these specials for many years. Pictures have always been at the heart of that presentation.

In the past, when our locals teams were smaller and arguably less popular, we had more time to create a single image to lead these sections. But the demands of professional sports, and the success of our teams, have made time a luxury no one can afford. Increasingly it would seem that five minutes is the total amount of time a team will allot to that effort.


The photo of Coach Petersen being used on the cover of the special section.

While nerve-racking, it's actually very manageable. Most photographers will go several hours early into the circumstance they're working in, set up lights, and shoot test frames with stand-ins that fairly accurately represent what will happen when that coach or athlete shows up. If you do it right, five minutes is more than enough time.

Except when nothing goes right, then all bets are off.

Photographing coach Chris Petersen for the Times NCAA football preview I thought I would try and make a photograph inside Husky Stadium. It's Petersen's first year as head coach on Montlake, so something about the legacy he was stepping into seemed appropriate.

I went into Husky Stadium a good hour or so before the picture was to be shot, and began assembling lights outside the tunnel. Steve Ringman, a staff photographer at the Times, and a friend retired from The San Francisco Chronicle came along to assist. There was a bit of a breeze and I wanted to make sure the lights didn't move on me the way they had on similar shoots.


Steve Ringman being a stand in as lighting is tweaked.

Steve and his friend also made terrific stand-ins for Coach Petersen and Dubs. I picked the angle and set the lights. Coach was scheduled to arrive at 5:30 p.m. Dubs would come in a few minutes earlier to give him a chance to acclimate to me and the set. But being a veteran of Husky Stadium, and cheering crowds of many thousands, I wasn't terribly worried about Dubs hitting his mark.


Ringman, right, and his friend standing in for Coach Petersen and Dubs.

His handler however threw out one caveat: a year or so prior, Dubs did a shoot inside Hec Ed and didn't respond well to the loud pop of the strobes inside an empty arena. She didn't think it was an issue; he hadn't ever done that before. This was outdoors, in a place he was very comfortable being in. He was certainly very used to being photographed.

Okay. Duly noted.

Dubs came in first, and strode confidently across the stadium turf. He's a beautiful animal, and everything you would hope for in a photograph. He was calm and pliable, and I told his handler exactly what I wanted to do. We sat him into position, with Steve in the background standing in for coach Petersen, and I double-checked the composition. Everything checked out. Brian Tom from Washington Sports Information called to say coach was on his way downstairs. We would have a few minutes, but that was all he could spare.

Fine. We were ready.

But -- just to be on the safe side, I thought I'd pop a quick frame to make sure my lights were doing what I hoped they would. I settled in front of Dubs and fired off one frame.


Ringman and Dubs in position for the photo.

Dubs turned, and looked right at the light.

Um. Uh-oh. Did he not like the lights? I fired off one more frame.

Dubs winced, cried, and decided he was not going to have anything to do with this shoot. And he walked off the set.

Dubs' handler tried to corral him back into the frame, but he was having none of it. When a 100-plus pound Malmute decides he is not going to cooperate, forget it. It's over. We tried to rearrange the set to take away what was bothering him, but he made it very clear that he wasn't going to be photographed, and that I -- as the evil man with the lights -- could not be trusted. Even without a camera he would not allow me to get anywhere near him.

And that was it for that picture. Without Dubs the composition just didn't work. I had built my picture around Dubs, and Dubs wasn't going to be in it.

So like all good photographers charged with shooting a special section piece, I panicked. I really had no clue what to do next. Everything went into this picture. Most importantly all the lights. Here comes coach. Now what?

About 20 minutes earlier I was in the Husky tunnel and noted that they were painting Husky images on to the walls. I had tinkered with the idea that this would make for a good background if, for some reason, we had more than five minutes with coach. But now my fall back strategy was my only option.


Ringman in front of back up background.

Steve and his friend each grabbed a light and hustled up the tunnel -- just as coach was arriving. Abandoning light stands, each held a light and pointed it at what we thought would probably give good coverage to the mural, and to coach Petersen. I shot maybe a dozen frames.

And that was it. Shoot over. Coach went on to pose for the Tacoma News Tribune's photographer doing a different picture. And then headed back up to his office.

I was disappointed that Plan A didn't work out. This was not the picture that I had in mind -- not at all. Not even close.


Four different poses with Coach Petersen.

Worse, Dubs did not like me any longer. And being a dog-guy, that was heartbreaking. Half an hour after the shoot was done, I walked across the stadium turf to talk to Dubs and his handler to apologize for traumatizing him. And from some considerable distance away he decided I had already gotten too close to him, and he started to back away. Malamutes have long memories, his handler said.

I wonder if he'll have forgiven me by the first home game? Because there's Coach, there's Dubs, and there's me. Guess which one is going to be shown the door at Husky Stadium?

Read the story on Husky coach Chris Petersen -- a perfectionist with a personal touch, here.

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