Hall of Fame NBA photographer Andy Bernstein has been immersed in professional basketball for the better part of four decades. Andy has worked as the official photographer for the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers, Sparks, Dodgers, and Kings, and has produced commercial projects for brands including Nike, Adidas, and Pepsi. From covering America’s Dream Team in the 1992 Olympics to his close collaboration with Kobe Bryant on documenting his 20+ year career with the Lakers, Andy Bernstein has done it all when it comes to the National Basketball Association. Andy’s photographic work has been displayed all over the world; from museum galleries to the posters that adorn the bedroom wall of young NBA fans everywhere.
What would you say is your earliest basketball memory?
Well, my earliest basketball memory was playing hoops in my driveway in Brooklyn, on East 24th Street. My dad had put up a hoop on the garage, and me and my buddies would play after school. On the weekends, whenever we could we played, even in the dark. In fact, my dad ended up putting a light up that was triggered at dusk.
I was always the shortest kid on my block, but I loved playing hoops. I felt big when I played, and while I wasn't very good, I still enjoyed it. And it was great camaraderie. I remember not being into pro or college basketball at all. I might have actually gone to a few of my high school games on account of photographing them for my high school’s newspaper and yearbook. But you know, basketball was more of the pickup schoolyard, in-the-driveway kind of thing.
Do you have a home court?
Probably my driveway on East 24th Street in Brooklyn. That would be my home court. Well, maybe P.S. 193 in Brooklyn where I attended elementary school. We ended up going back there often during our junior and high school years. Neither our junior high school nor high school had any outdoor courts. And because it was only four or five blocks from my house, we ended up playing there which was kind of crazy; high schoolers going back to elementary school to play basketball.
What was the first basketball photo you took and that you were proud of?
I can't tell you I remember the first one I took but the first one that was published came during my freshman year at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. I was working as a photographer for the UMass Daily Collegian newspaper on assignment covering UMass against Rhode Island. I got this picture of our star player, Alex Eldridge. And it was just a simple layup picture. You know, nothing special, but it was the first photo that was actually published with my byline. That was a thrill. To this day, that picture sits in my office, underneath all the iconic Kobes, Magics, and Jordans. I look at that and remember where it all came from.
How did you feel shooting your first NBA game? Tell me about the preparation that went into it.
That has to be from when I was still in school. I had recently transferred to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, during my junior year at UMass. My direction toward photography and photojournalism had really sort of begun to materialize: I was going to be a sports photographer.
Back in those days, you could write to the PR director and say, ‘Hey, I'm a student at Art Center. I'm trying to build my portfolio. Could I get a credential for this game?’ Most of the time, they would grant access.
I think my first professionally organized experience was at a UCLA basketball game. Then the next game was most definitely a Laker home game. That had to be around 1980. And I didn't prepare at all! At the time, I think I owned one camera with one lens, and I had to borrow another camera and a lens. I had been assisting for Sports Illustrated and stuff, so I kind of knew how logistics worked on the court. But it was a thrill sitting down there, baseline with guys flying over your head. And you know, back then we shot film, which required manual focus and all that stuff.
While at Art Center College, I did a class project on the Los Angeles Kings hockey team and they sort of gave me carte blanche to go behind the scenes with the team. But I quickly fell in love with shooting basketball, because, you know, hockey is very challenging to shoot. We had to shoot through these little holes back in the day, or - if you can believe this - we’d actually stand with our heads over the Plexiglass. So you know, you were taking your life in your hands. Basketball could be a little dangerous too, but it's a little bit more controlled, you know? So, yeah, I hope I answered that question. I don't remember much preparation because I really didn’t have much to prepare for.
You've been behind the lens for the most iconic NBA moments of all time. What are the elements that make a legendary photo?
In photography our main goal is to elicit a response from the viewer. So if a photograph elicits any kind of response – sadness, joy, laughter, nostalgia – then I've done my job. That's first and foremost. If it's a boring picture, it may provoke some kind of response simply because it might be of your favorite player or something. But to make an iconic photo you have to elicit a response.
But not all photos start out as iconic. Some can take on a sort of legendary status as years go by. Yes, there are photos like Michael Jordan holding this first trophy and crying in ‘91 or Kobe dunking. He used to dunk a lot more and I took it for granted. If I didn't come home with four or five dunks from a game, it was like a bad game. As his career progressed, and now that we've lost him, those photos have taken on such monumental proportions, because of who he became. But back in the moment, I was just happy to get a great picture. I wasn't putting the word iconic next to it.
Shooting basketball can be repetitive, and you've been doing it for 40 years now. How do you, as a creative, continue to reinvent yourself?
Well, it's a great question. I don't think I'm reinventing myself, I think I'm perpetuating the passion that I've always had.
You know, in terms of reinvention, the only reinventing I had to do is when I had to switch from film to digital. That was a gigantic reinvention on the technical side, but the way that I approach my craft, and the way I approach my work ethic has been the same since day one. I'm gonna take another page out of Kobe’s book: he knew it was time to retire when he woke up one morning and he didn't want to go to the gym and shoot. I'll know, it's time when I wake up in the morning and it's a lot harder now, older and crotchety and you know, a lot of things ache. But if I don't, if I'm not driving down to Crypto.com Arena or somewhere else on the road, and excited that I'm going to be going in this game and the matchups and thinking about, you know, all the aspects that make up that 48 minutes, then it's going to be time to hang it up. I'm not there yet, because I still love doing it.
Was it Adam Silver who said, your best photos are ahead of you?
Yeah, that was unbelievable. That was the greatest compliment I think he could have paid me at that moment. Usually when somebody gets a Hall of Fame Award, they're either retired or maybe they're dead. But I was still very much active. And for him to say that was just a tremendous shot in the arm. I told him afterwards that I didn’t think he realized how powerful and empowering that statement was. I think he was just trying to cheer me on in a way. That was a beautiful thing to say.
The best NBA players have rivals that push them to be better. Who has been Isiah to your Jordan in the photo world?
I could rattle off some names, but first and foremost I’d have to say, my good friend John McDonough. Long time staff photographer at Sports Illustrated, John – in my opinion – is the premier basketball photographer in the world. Not to take anything away from my good buddy Nat Butler or Manny Millan, or Peter Read Miller, but John and I used to shoot for years right alongside each other.
I can't tell you how many times he and I would be at a huge game, like a Western Conference finals game or whatever it could be, and he'd be on assignment. I’d get the Sports Illustrated magazine the following Tuesday, rifle through it, and I'm looking at these unbelievable pictures that John shot from the same game. There’s been times when I've just called him in the moment, like, ‘when the f did that happen, dude? I don't remember that ever happening.’ John is just an absolute magician with a camera. He is incredible.
Now Nat Butler, he embraced the Hasselblad technology and used their cameras from the get go, while I struggled with it. It took me two full seasons to get comfortable with the format. And I think out of the gate, Nat started shooting unbelievable pictures. And that format really suited him because Nat is incredibly creative with composition and his timing is impeccable. I've always been looking at his pictures. And like with John, Nat and I would be at the same All Star game or the same Finals game. Him on one side and I on the other, and I'd see his pictures and suddenly my jaw would just drop.
Looking back, those photos have taken on a life of their own because, you know, film is now a prehistoric kind of way of doing business that will never come back, unfortunately. And to have the richness of that film, you know, to remember the golden age of the NBA is priceless.
Are there any up and coming creatives that impress you right now?
I have a guy working with me, named William Navarro, who is a fantastic photographer. You can put him in any situation, any sport, and he will come away with incredible pictures.
And there's a woman who works for me named Bailey Holliver. Bailey started working with me when she was in 10th grade as an intern in the office. She was fantastic then as a photographer and she has matured into an unbelievable talent. Bailey is somebody that I think has an incredible future in front of her.
Kelly Smiley is another photographer, who, every time she goes out to shoot – whether it's entertainment or sports – just impresses me beyond belief.
I'm super fortunate, you know, to have these folks working with me. But I'm seeing other people out there who are young and energetic and hungry and creative. And I love seeing that. That's one of the reasons why I continue to teach. I can see this young energy and help to guide them with my experience.
How has technology changed the game of basketball photography?
The short answer is, it hasn't. I shoot the game the same way I shot it back in the analog film days. I still watch the game through my lens anticipating action, only shooting one frame every four seconds. I approach the game the same, from how I prepare to how I shoot. Once the ball goes up, I still shoot the same way I did.
I will say one way it has changed, is that back in the day, we were only able to use one remote camera. You could not fire multiple cameras on one strobe burst back then. There was no technology that could do that. So we helped to develop this radio technology called the Flash Wizard system to fire multiple cameras at the exact same moment that the strobes were going off. I still don't understand how it works quite honestly, but it's the most monumental technology because it transformed the way the NBA could sell their pictures. You could sell the same moment of a Michael Jordan dunk to competing poster or trading cards companies. And it's not the same picture because it's shot from different angles. Now we take the technology for granted because I do five six remotes every single game. But back in the day I had to choose to put the camera on the glass or on the basket stanchion or overhead, and that would be it. It's super gratifying when you see it all work together.
Who has been your favorite person to photograph in your career?
I hate this question because I have four kids and I could never name which kid I love the best. But with Kobe, I had the gift of having him in front of my lens for 20 years. Yes, I shot Jordan’s whole career, but I wasn't based in Chicago, so I didn't see him play every home game. With Kobe I literally shot 99% of his home games. From preseason and regular season, to playoffs and Finals. He was such a joy to photograph. Kobe was this big ball of energy when he first came in the league. And I learned with Michael Jordan to be patient and give myself an extra millisecond before I hit the trigger button. The Mamba was just a gift to a photographer.
Did you always feel becoming a sports photographer was your destiny?
Well that was the theme of my Hall of Fame speech, actually, because I first read that phrase in Peter Guber’s book. Peter built himself up from a scrappy kid from the streets of Boston, to a movie mogul who ran studios and owns sports teams. But was that his destiny? From reading his book to knowing and talking to him, I got the feeling that it was.
In my case, I had a dream to be a sports photographer, you know, but started out as more of an editorial photojournalist. My dream kind of started to take shape in high school, and then, obviously, in college at UMass. Then when I moved out to California that dream morphed into a goal. So looking back, was it my destiny? I would say yes, because I think those two elements – a dream and a goal – add up to where I ended up. I earned that destiny.
The most important thing to remember is that nobody gives it to you. You have to earn it. And that's a hard thing to get across to the younger generation, because so much has been given to the younger generation. There's so much technology that's just right there at your fingertips. You know, my generation, we had to go out and find it and learn it. There was no Google in those days.
I also give a lot of credit to mentors in my life. Neil Leifer being top of the list to teachers at Art Center, Bill Robbins and Jim Caccavo. I had a business class that was taught by an incredible instructor named Errol Gerson. We’ve remained friends and he's in his 50th year teaching. He’s amazing. So you know, you don't get there by yourself.
You have to have humility and confidence to seek out people who can help you along the way all while showing a lot of gratitude. And then pay it back. At this point in my life and career being of service and giving back is paramount. I mean, you know, just talking to you, I feel like I'm giving back because I'm giving forth some some knowledge, I guess, and wisdom from many years of doing this that might help somebody.
What do you look for when you're hiring a photographer? What's the best advice you have for an aspiring photographer?
The first thing is your work. You need to see something in the world. They don't even have to have a style. But just something that shows that it's not snapshots. Something a little bit deeper. Once I meet that person, I want to see some self confidence but not the kind that crosses into arrogance. And unfortunately, there are some incredibly talented photographers out there who have this chip on their shoulder. I like to see that a person is respectful but also is appreciative of the time I'm giving to look at their work.
I don't care if you're a digital tech or one of the veteran full time photographers, we all need to understand we're part of a group and our job is to produce the best possible imagery for our clients, period. Take personalities out of it. That's what I pride myself on and that's why I've had the same clients for decades.
For aspiring photographers there has to be a desire there. It's about experimentation and trying things that don't always work out and learning from that. I encourage that all the time. I don't think it's about the equipment. Yeah better equipment could theoretically get better pictures, but that's not always the case.
If there's one photograph that you would want to be remembered by, which one would it be?
The two or three or four pictures that come to mind are not action pictures. The one picture I would point to is of Michael Jordan holding the trophy with his dad next to him. It just sums up so much NBA history in one picture and it was more of a photojournalistic moment. The second one would be Kobe in the ice in black and white that's in the Mamba book. I just love that picture. To me that photo really sums up the Mamba Mentality and Kobe’s work ethic. It speaks volumes.