"20 years in the making" - How Bay Area photographer Ezra Shaw got the SI cover shot he so deserved

 (Photo by Ezra Shaw)

(Photo by Ezra Shaw)

By Connor Buestad | Connor@Section925.com

Over his 20-year career with Getty Images, Bay Area based photographer Ezra Shaw has been at about every important sporting event you could dream of, usually in the front row, trying not to get run over by a multi-million dollar athlete. He’s shot the Olympics over 10 times, not to mention the Tour de France, the America’s Cup, the World Series, the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals and everything in between. If you’ve picked up a magazine or logged onto the internet over the last two decades, chances are you’ve stopped and starred at his stunning work. The articles below his photographs rarely do them justice.

Even with print’s inevitable decline, a Sports Illustrated cover shot is still the holy grail for a sports photographer in this day and age. Few things are as timeless in the world of sport. But 19 years into his career, Shaw still hadn’t had his work grace the cover yet. The box was still left unchecked. But all that would change thanks to a painful knee injury.

“Oh you want to hear about the Julian Edelman cover?” asks Shaw with a strong tone of humility over a coffee in Berkeley. “Well let me start by telling you I wasn’t even supposed to be at that game, to be honest. I was scheduled to be at a ski race that weekend.”

Instead of taking one of the most iconic photos in Super Bowl history, Shaw should have been freezing his toes off in a pair of ski boots on the side of Mammoth Mountain. Downhill skiing has always been one of his most challenging and fulfilling sports to shoot, and Getty was sending him out for a race to do what he does best. The only problem was that he suffered a nagging knee injury of his own six weeks before. Skiing down a downhill course to find camera position wasn’t going to work that weekend.

“I put a call into my editor at Getty and we figured out a solution. One of the photographers scheduled for the Super Bowl was nice enough to switch assignments with me. So I showed up at the football game with a bum knee and he went to Mammoth. The ski race ended up getting cancelled because of white-out conditions and I got an SI cover out of it, so I’m not sure how fair that trade was,” laughed Shaw.

Not only was Shaw struggling with a knee injury that weekend, when he arrived to shoot the Falcons-Patriots Super Bowl, he was assigned a position nowhere near the field. “Usually I’m down on the field, but since my knee was hurt and I was the last photographer on the list, they put me in a seat up in the second deck. It was a comfortable spot, but I certainly wasn’t getting great pictures for the first three quarters,” said Shaw.

Indeed, the game was a dud. Nearing the end of the third quarter, The Patriots trailed the Falcons 28-3. It was seemingly over. But what ensued over the next 14 minutes into overtime was unforgettable. The Pats stormed back with 31 unanswered points, highlighted by a circus catch from Edelman on a miraculous heave from Tom Brady. Both products of the Bay Area.

As it turned out, from his perch in the second deck, Shaw held a perfect position to capture the moment. A photo that would forever freeze-frame a historic comeback into one perfect image.

 The closing seconds of Steph's first NBA Title (Photo by Ezra Shaw)

The closing seconds of Steph's first NBA Title (Photo by Ezra Shaw)

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A graduate of Syracuse University’s famed Newhouse School of Communications, it wasn’t until after college in 1996 that Shaw knew for sure that he wanted sports photography to be his career. That’s when Shaw took former Sports Illustrated editor Maureen Cavanagh up on an opportunity to attend the Summer Olympics in Atlanta to serve as an assistant for the SI photographers. He vividly remembers driving to the Opening Ceremonies in Atlanta alongside Richard Mackson and a dozen of the best of the best photographers in the world. Two decades later, when Shaw was snapping his first Sports Illustrated cover, Mackson just so happened to be a few rows down from him, capturing his own Super Bowl shots. It had all come full circle. 

When you talk to Shaw you learn quickly that sports photography has a big element of luck involved. You have to be in the right place at the right time at the right point in the game. Not to mention the right newspaper or magazine has to pick up the right photo. There are a ton of moving parts. That said, Shaw is a master at giving himself the best chance to succeed.

This involves arriving at events days in advance to scope out the best possible angles and backgrounds for potential shots. For example, he’ll climb into the catwalk attached to the ceiling of Oracle Arena in Oakland to attach a remote camera for shots of overhead dunks. Or he’ll scour sight lines for hours on end at AT&T park in San Francisco to find the perfect landscape shot of the ballpark by The Bay.

“I’m always looking to capture the atmosphere of a sporting event,” explains Shaw. “I want people to feel what it was like to be there. If I have an opportunity to shoot from a wider angle to capture the emotion of the event, I will try to provide that perspective.”  

Not only has Shaw witnessed countless sporting events and championship moments, he’s also seen an industry change dramatically over the past 20 years. Early in his career, Shaw remembers attending games with rolls of 36 exposures of film at his disposal. In other words, he couldn’t miss his moment, he only had so many shots to take on a given night. The process could be time consuming. Today, Shaw arrives courtside with a Canon digital camera that will take 14 frames per second for him. Hundreds of photos are taken at every game he attends nowadays. The idea of sticking out above the rest with a noticeable photo is more difficult than ever. It can't be the only thing you think about on a daily basis.

“Overall, one of the most important things for me is to be someone who is easy to work with among other photographers," says Shaw. "If you are trained correctly and work hard at all the events you attend, not just the Super Bowl or the Finals, the photos will come and your work will be recognized.”

So even if it is a Wednesday afternoon A’s game in Oakland, with a sea of empty green seats in the background and the playoffs nowhere to be found, Shaw will still be hunkered down in the Oakland Coliseum’s wooden photo well, chipping away at his craft. Never knowing how the story is going to end or what will ultimately wind up on the cover when the magazine finally goes to print.