Photographer Profile - Nick Laham: "I wanted to cover him in a way that was a little different"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday September 27, 2016

In those years when the New York Yankees don’t make it to the World Series, the team’s fans have to warm themselves through the long winter with thoughts of springtime possibilities and the glories of the past.

They have no shortage fond memories to linger over or storied players to honor, of course: Every big-league ballpark is a place where the past, present and future commingle, but at Yankee Stadium the great legends — Babe Ruth, Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle — are perhaps more palpably present than anywhere else.

You can feel them in the photographs that Nick Laham  shot at the Stadium during the final games of the 2014 season.

That year, as September came to an end, Laham went to the Bronx to document the final home stands of another Yankee great, Number 2, shortstop Derek Jeter, who had announced his retirement earlier that year. His goal was to capture the emotions of moment, but his photographs had everything to do with the past.

“In a day and age when players move around from team to team for money or to win championships, Jeter was like from another era,” Laham says. “He played for the Yankees his whole career. And he was always the epitome of what you want in an athlete — the way he played the game, and how he led his life. It was hard at that point to think of anyone who has that kind of legacy anymore.”

An Australian who has been based in New York for the past 11 years, Laham has been shooting sports and athletes his entire career, having come up working in the darkroom of Allsport, the Sydney-based sports photography agency founded by photographer Tony Duffy and acquired by Getty Images in 1998. Though he wasn’t a native New Yorker, Laham knew what Jeter meant to the city and the game.

“I went to ESPN the Magazine and said, hey do you want to cover his final home stands?” Latham recalls. “They thought that was a good idea, so I started photographing every game I could.”

What Laham didn’t want to do was shoot the same pictures that the other sports photographers at the Stadium were shooting. “He was a different kind of player, so I wanted to cover Jeter in a way that was a little different,” he says.

The Authenticity of Sports

Rather than shooting with a telephoto lens, Laham worked with three shorter fixed-focal-length lenses — a 35mm lens, a 50mm lens, and an 85mm lens. He also shot in black and white. “I viewed that as a challenge to myself,” he says.

His creative choices resulted in images that capture not only a player, but the place he played in and the people he played for. They feel timeless, as befits a legend.

“Nick’s photographs have a beautiful intensity, which is perfect when the subject matter is an athlete,” says Jim Surber, deputy photo editor of ESPN digital and print. “Covering sports events for Getty gave him a deep understanding of the physical levels athletes push themselves to achieve.  As he developed into a feature photographer and got more up-close and personal with his portraits and documentary work, he strives to capture the essence of their physicality.”

Laham, who is based in Brooklyn, specializes in editorial and commercial sport, action and portrait photography. Besides ESPN, his work has appeared in Golf Digest, Men’s Fitness and Sports Illustrated, while his commercial clients include New Balance, Nike, Direct TV and Bank of America. His photographs of Jeter were later also selected for the American Photography 31 annual. Another series he shot about a notable sports figure — UFC competitor Ronda Rousey — was selected in the AP 32 competition.

“I like sports because the authenticity of an un-staged moment is great,” he says. He tries to carry that sense of authenticity over to his staged portraits of athletes.

“Athletes today fall into the same realm as celebrities — you have to think a lot going into a photo session about what you want because you’re not going to have much time with them,” he says. “You’ve got to have a plan —you need to know what body position to put them in to make it look more real, and you’ve got to know what they might be prepared to give you on set.”

Though he played some baseball growing up in Sydney, shooting sports — or even being a photographer — it wasn’t a career he ever planned on. “I always loved art, but when I thought about how hard it was if you wanted to be a painter or a sculptor or someone in that realm, it seemed that commercial photography would be a better way to make a living,” he says.

He took a photography course as an art elective in high school and after graduating in 1999 started working at Allsport, at age 18. It was good timing for a couple of reasons.

One was that the Olympics came to Sydney in 2000, putting the world’s best athletes at his doorstep.

Beyond that, says Latham, “it was also just a very exciting time for photography in Australia.”

Legends and Lessons From Sydney

In Sydney, he came into contact with a generation of photographers who were taking sports photography to a spectacular visual level.

“The Sydney Morning Herald was having this great moment, with a great staff of photographers,” Laham says. “Tim Clayton was there, and he’d won a number of World Press awards. And there was Adam Pretty and Craig Golding. It was a really unique time. It was a tight community — people would get together and have drinks and talk about photography and put on slide shows. Everyone wanted to see what everyone else was shooting and to push them along. So I feel very lucky that when I was 18 years old and very impressionable, they were the people who were critiquing my work and helping me put together portfolios.”

That golden age did not last — the media in general and photography in particular was on the brink of momentous change as the internet changed how the world worked.

“You could see that period was going to end, with new pressures on the print media and new technology and the failure of many photographers to adapt,” Laham says.

One way Laham adapted was moving to New York. “I came to visit for three weeks and stayed with a good friend who showed me around, and I fell in love with the city. I still love it, despite the horrific winters,” he says. He also understood that he needed commercial as well editorial clients in order to survive.

Looking back, he can see how he’s come to apply the lessons he learned as a young photographer in Australia.

“All the guys there at the time were trying shoot great pictures all the time and to win awards. They were trying to push things forward,” Latham says. “Tim Clayton was very much about pushing sports photography forward — not just pointing and shooting but instead thinking, and that was ingrained in me.”