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December 2005

The Land of Oz

The Adirondack roots of all-American photographer Ozzie Sweet

It would be hard to miss Ozzie Sweet’s photographs. Over the past sixty years his work has ap­peared on the front of more than seventeen hundred magazines, illustrated best-selling books and encouraged vigilance on wartime posters. Eleven of his photos have been enlarged to eighteen by sixty feet and displayed in New York City’s Grand Central Station. You may even have seen his work without realizing it, since his photos appear on many commercial calendars. NAPA Auto Parts calendars, featuring Sweet’s photos of classic cars, are distributed nationwide.

“I’m an artist,” says Sweet over breakfast at Elizabethtown’s Arsenal Inn. “Some people use canvas and paint to create a picture. I use a camera and film to make mine.” He has an incredible eye for detail, color and light. There is no question that his images are works of art, but not in the traditional sense. Perhaps that is because Sweet did not set out to be a photographer.

 

OSCAR “OZZIE” SWEET was born Oscar Cowan Corbo in Stamford, Connecticut, on September 10, 1918. His mother soon divorced her gambling husband and moved with her young son to the tiny Adirondack hamlet of New Russia, south of Elizabethtown. There she met Hardy Sweet, Elizabethtown’s only police officer, whom she eventually married. Hardy adopted the boy and gave him his surname, a moniker that Sweet remembers having to defend in the schoolyard. But life in the country was good. Even today, Sweet’s tales of driving a hay wagon, raising flowers and selling nickel bouquets to summer tourists, and attending New Russia’s one-room schoolhouse keep his three grown children entertained.

Going into the village for high school in 1932 meant traveling six miles north on Route 9 to Elizabethtown. He joined the basketball team and caddied in the summer at Cobble Hill Golf Course. His fa­vorite duffer was silent-film legend Otto Krue­ger, who spent vacations in the Adirondacks.

In 1936 Sweet returned to Stamford, where he completed his senior year of high school. After school and on weekends he worked part-time sweeping out the studio of sculptor Gutzon Borglum. The second of Borglum’s magnificent presidential likenesses carved into Mount Rushmore had recently been dedicated. “I wanted to become a sculptor too,” Sweet remembers.

Returning to the Adirondacks for the summer, he spent mornings caddying and eve­nings creating his Adirondack version of Mount Rushmore. After building a wooden scaffold, he set about carving a profile into a boulder about fifty feet off Route 9 in New Russia.

“I decided to work on a large rock along what we called ‘Bootleggers Run,’ which was Route 9,” he explains. “My friends came to watch me and I worked until dark. Then we all jumped in the best swimming hole on the Bo­quet River.” Today Indian Joe, as Sweet titled his carving, is fifteen feet high and still visible to those who know where to look.

Sweet was captivated by faces early on, and he continued to hone his sculpting skills on blocks he made by combining cement and sand, then pouring the mixture into a cardboard box. One of his sculpted heads now resides on the lawn of a ship captain’s home overlooking Lake Erie.

But Sweet was not destined to make his career with a chisel. In 1937 he left the Adirondacks and took a job as a chauffeur, driving two wealthy architects from New York City to Clearwater, Florida. While there, he spent time on the beach snapping photos of sand sculptures using a thirty-five-millimeter Ar­gus C3 camera. He sold one of his photos to a local newspaper, which printed it in its Sunday edition.

After three months in Florida, Sweet made his way to California, where he worked as a carhop at a drive-in restaurant at night and attended Los Angeles’s Art Center during the day.

While in L.A. he heard that director Cecil B. DeMille was shooting the swashbuckling epic Reap the Wild Wind, starring John Wayne. Sweet bribed a security guard, pitched a tent in the studio parking lot, erected a sign that read “Part in Reap the Wild Wind or Bust” and cornered the director when he came to work the next morning. His efforts landed him a bit part in the film as a pirate. From there he went on to play a series of heavies in Hopalong Cassidy movies during the early 1940s—he even took a turn as a Nazi officer in an anti-German propaganda film—and still carries his Screen Actors Guild card in his wallet.

“I wasn’t much of an actor,” he remembers, “but I could leap onto a horse.”

The bombing of Pearl Harbor and World War II interrupted Sweet’s acting career. In 1942 he was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Camp Callan, in San Diego. While there, he borrowed a camera and began taking pictures of his fellow soldiers during training exercises. One of his photographs, a soldier with a knife clenched between his teeth, was released by the U.S. Army Information Office and appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine in Oc­tober 1942.

Encouraged by his success, Sweet transferred from the Signal Corps to the Army Air Corps and, after several months of training, became a photo officer. Working at first with a folding Kodak camera, then later with a large-format Rolleiflex, he was able to create emotion-filled shots. One was the picture of a GI, a puppy peeking out of his field pack, that appeared on the cover of Liberty magazine in December 1942.

During the war years, Newsweek, Time and Life magazines frequently used publicly released military photos. Newsweek’s May 1945 cover shot of an exhausted German soldier, arms raised in surrender, caught the attention of the magazine’s editor. He wanted to know which Army photographer had captured such a powerful image of defeat.

Little did the editor realize that the photo was actually a Sweet creation. The picture had been taken in Florida using one of Sweet’s skinny friends as a model. “I prefer to call it a photo illustration,” Sweet says with a sly grin.

He was immediately invited to New York for a job interview, but to get there during wartime he had to hop a ride on a B-24 bomber that was making training runs up and down the East Coast. The interview was a success, and as soon as Sweet was discharged he signed on with Newsweek. “I only worked for Newsweek for one year,” he explains. “Ever since then I’ve been unemployed.”

But he was hardly idle. After the war, Sweet turned to sports and celebrities for his subject matter and was often chosen as the photographer who introduced young athletes to the public. A catalyst for this part of his career was a call from the editor of the now-defunct Sport magazine, who asked Sweet to take on as­signments for the barely two-year-old publication. Sweet replied that he knew little about sports. “‘That’s the reason we use you,’” Sweet recalls the editor saying. “‘We don’t want the usual sports cover on our magazine.’”

During this period, Sweet began to develop his artistry as a color photographer, when color film was in its infancy. Unlike black-and-white film, color was much slower and required longer exposures. He went on to shoot hundreds of covers for Sport—including an annual portrait of Mickey Mantle—and later Sports Illustrated during the 1950s and 1960s. His work also made it onto the covers of Look magazine and Life. Close-up photos of favorite players such as Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Jim Brown and Jackie Robinson running, jumping or sliding into a base were his specialty. “I call them staged action shots,” he says. “I wanted the subject close-up and clear, but I also wanted them moving.” Some of Sweet’s most well-known sports photos can be seen in two of his books, Mickey Mantle: The Yankee Years and Legends of the Field: The Classic Sports Photography of Ozzie Sweet.

Other cultural dignitaries found themselves in front of his camera. Albert Einstein looking rumpled in an old sweatshirt and actor Jimmy Durante in his famous nose-meets-butterfly pose are classic Sweet.

Sweet even made a photo portfolio for a young actress named Grace Kelly. “We made a deal. I’d send her a percentage of any pictures I sold,” he remembers. “I was still sending her checks when she became Princess of Monaco, and she cashed them.”

In the winter months Sweet often returned to his Adirondack roots. The Lake Placid area be­came a backdrop for his sledding, skiing, snowmobiling and ice-skating photos, many of which in­volved athletes caught in midair. Boys’ Life magazine hired him to photograph a young figure skater named Gordon McKellen on the ice in Lake Placid. Mc­Kellen went on to win the Men’s National Championship three years in a row, beginning in 1973.

“To get a clear action image was almost impossible,” Sweet remembers. Tripod cameras and flash equipment that could only be used one shot at a time were also bulky, and he preferred working in natural light. Photographing each subject meant trying to achieve the look of action while the athletes were actually standing still.

“I put hours of time and planning into every shot,” he says. One of his winter photos from this period shows four children flying downhill on a toboggan, the kids’ hair and hats blowing in the wind. Sweet achieved the results with steel cables, high-tension fishing lines and fan-blown artificial snow­flakes.

Sweet carefully composes each photo, considers every angle and plans every action ahead of time. People, dogs, even birds in flight or fish jumping over waterfalls are meant to look natural. He wants his audience to ask, “How did he catch that deer in mid-leap?”

And while people can be posed, animals were less cooperative. Many of his nature shots were hardly natural. “It helped that I knew a really good taxidermist in those days,” says Sweet.

On eleven occasions, Kodak’s Colorama display at Grand Central Station, in New York City, featured Sweet’s work. The images—shot with a special camera using eight-by-twenty-inch film, then enlarged to eighteen by sixty feet —were billed as the largest photographs in the world, and included his scene of Saranac Lake’s ice castle with children and adults playing around the base, taken in February 1985.

In the 1990s Grand Central Station underwent renovations and the Colorama display was removed, but Sweet’s photos, along with the work of many other featured photographers, can be viewed on Kodak’s website and in a newly published book titled simply Color­ama (Aperture, 2004).

After so many years of taking photos, Sweet has negatives numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Even after a tragic mid-1960s fire at his home in Francestown, New Hampshire, which destroyed most of his equipment and many of his negatives, he still has enough early work to fill several books. His most recent, The Boys of Spring, featuring images of major league baseball’s spring training in Florida over the past fifty-plus years, was released by SportClassic Books in summer 2005.

AT AGE EIGHTY-SEVEN, Sweet re­fuses to slow down. “Ever notice how as soon as people retire, they die?” he says, waving off the idea. “Right now I’m busy working on two books and shooting photos for several calendars.”

This October Sweet plans to travel to New York City, where he’ll be presented with a Lucie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Sports Photography. It’s a fitting tribute to the stellar sixty-plus-year career of a man Sports Illustrated’s Chuck Solomon has called “the Babe Ruth of photographers.” Some, in­cluding Neil Leifer— who has more than two hundred Sports Illustrated, People and Time covers to his credit—have likened Sweet to Norman Rockwell. With today’s digital-manipulation tools, viewers sometimes take for granted the kinds of photos Sweet worked so hard to achieve.

Though his current home—which he shares with his wife, Diane—is in York Harbor, Maine, he returns to the Adirondacks whenever he can. In summer 2004 he photographed an an­tique tractor show at the former Plattsburgh Air Force Base and an antique car show in front of Lake Placid High School. Adirondack friends and neigh­bors frequently see him when he comes to visit his old haunts in the Boquet Valley, his camera always within easy reach.

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