Photographer Profile - Daniel Kramer: "It was a such a special season, and I was so lucky to photograph it"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday September 6, 2016

The relationship between the Green Bay Packers and the team’s fans is unique: The third oldest National Football League franchise, the Packers are the only community-owned non-profit major-league sports team in the US. But the deep affection of those who brave the icy confines of Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, rests on the team’s storied history, especially its glory years in the 1960s under head coach Vince Lombardi, when the Packers dominated pro football, winning five world championships, including the first two Super Bowls.

You have to know that history and what followed — a quarter century without a championship — to understand the significance of Daniel Kramer’s photographs of the team's 1996 season, when the Pack came back.

"The thing about the Packer fans is that even through all those bad years, they never gave up,” Kramer says, “The stadium was sold out every game.”

For Packers fans, the name Kramer has a special meaning. Daniel Kramer’s father is Jerry Kramer, the offensive right guard who helped make Lombardi’s Packer sweep a famously fearsome play. Jerry Kramer’s book Instant Replay, an account of the Packers’ 1967 season co-authored by his close friend, the late sportswriter Dick Schaap, became a bestseller and touchstone of sports literature, and he went on to be a successful businessman. After retiring from football, he watched with frustration as the fortunes of the Packers declined.  “Dad always said that for the first few years after he retired, he didn’t mind that the team was bad, but that after a while it got painful,” says Dan Kramer.

It all began to change in 1992, when the Packers brought in new general manager Ron Wolf, new head coach Mike Holmgren, and a young quarterback named Brett Favre. By 1996, all the pieces were in place: That season, the team went 13-3 and beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI by a score of 35 to 21.

“It was a such a special season, and I was so lucky to photograph it,” says Dan Kramer, who admits he’d fallen out of love with his dad’s old team during its long championship drought. He had spent a number of those years away from Green Bay, studying journalism at the University of Minnesota, going to work for a small newspaper in California, then embarking on a photographic journey around the world. He returned to Wisconsin in the summer of ’96, just in time to become a full-on Packer fan again.

“I was broke, living in my mom’s basement, trying to put a book about my trip together,” he says. Then he had the idea of photographing Brett Favre together with Bart Starr, the great quarterback of the Lombardi years, to symbolize the connection between the two eras, the greatness of the Packer past and and present.

“I suggested to my dad that he write a story for Sports Illustrated to go with the photo,” Kramer says. Instead, his father referred him to Dick Schaap, who loved the idea. “But he said, ‘This isn’t a magazine article; it’s a book,” Dan Kramer recalls.

The book, Schaap’s sixth and final, was Green Bay Replay  —  an unabashed paean to Packer history and Packer fandom featuring a number of photographs that Dan Kramer took throughout the ’96 season.

Now, 20 years later, Kramer is marking the anniversary of the turnaround ’96 season with his own book, called Return to Glory.

Family Album

The book brings together 104 of Kramer’s pictures from 1996, along with the memories of people connected to the team. The vivid photos he shot at Lambeau Field now have the warm glow of nostalgia and will delight Packer fans. But the work comes with a unique pedigree and perspective: The Packers have always been part of Kramer’s life, and this is his own personal story, too. In a foreword, sports journalist Jeremy Schaap, the son of Dick Schaap and the godson of Jerry Kramer, writes that both he and Dan Kramer grew up “in the shadows of towering men — his literally so.”

The book has the feeling of a family album. Among the photos are a number featuring players from his father’s era — Favre and Starr together, and others captured at a Packers alumni game, linking together generations. “Kramer shows us that life goes on after the cheering ends,” writes Jeremy Schaap.

Dan Kramer is now based in Houston, where he's built a freelance career shooting for editorial and corporate clients. He got the idea for the new book while updating his website and going through his archive, which he says was both “a joy and a pain.” He ended up showing his photos of the ’96 Packers to a friend, Jim Colton, the former photo editor of both Sports Illustrated and Newsweek. Colton told Kramer to do a book.

“It was pretty simple why I thought it was a good idea," says Colton. “First, I'm a Green Bay Packers fan since 1961. Second, I love looking at sports photography, especially comprehensive historical collections. What intrigued me most about Dan's pictures was the intimacy that a lot of them held. The love for — and from — his father is evident in so many of the images.”

“Jim suggested I do a Kickstarter campaign for the book, which is something I’d never thought of,” Kramer says. “It was the validation I needed.”

Green-and-Gold World

Kramer notes at his website that he got his first camera as a birthday gift from his father in 1983, just as he was heading to the University of Minnesota. After a stint shooting for the Record Gazette of Banning, California — "It had a circulation of 17,000, or maybe that was my salary, I can't remember," says Kramer — he got an MFA in documentary photography from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

Then came an internship with Newsday in New York. He attended the Eddie Adams Workshop in 1995, just before taking off on his journey around the globe. His goal was to retrace the tour of the far-flung British Empire that Mark Twain undertook exactly 100 years earlier. Twain wrote about his trip in the book Following the Equator.

“My editor at the Banning Record Gazette had recommended that I read it, and I was completely fascinated,” Kramer says. “There were all these exotic places, and I just started dreaming of seeing them.”

In the back of his mind, Kramer thought that he would turn his pictures from the trip into a book. It never happened. “I showed a dummy to National Geographic and they said I should get a better designer. I didn’t have money for a designer,” he says.

Then came the 1996 football season, with another mighty Green Bay Packers team. Recently, Kramer was watching an video while researching his father’s career, and there, in a shot taken at the ’96 Packer alumni game, he caught a glimpse of himself photographing his dad.

“I was raised less than a mile from Lambeau Field. Mom says I went to my first Packer game when I was three,” Kramer writes in his new book. “In Green Bay, the fire hydrants are painted green and gold, Lombardi Avenue runs past Lambeau Field and intersects Holmgren Way, and Packerland Drive intersects with Glory Road.” It’s that green-and-gold world that Kramer captured in his pictures.