Joe Burrow SI Cover: How Photographer Jeffery A. Salter Captured Bengals Star QB
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The lights are bright at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio, casting a yellow beam that reflects off the orange and black tiger stripe helmets worn by Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and center Ted Karras. But the two players are alone in their black, orange and white uniforms because this is not the usual NFL game, practice or training camp. The field is empty except for photographer Jeffery A. Salter, his two assistants, and enough photographic equipment to turn the empty stadium into a backdrop that mimics an action-packed field.
Karras is a 29-year-old center who came to Cincinnati last spring after winning two Super Bowl titles with the Patriots. He should be part of the Bengals’ starting lineup this season, likely taking his place inside the offensive line. He arrives before Burrow, and Salter immediately starts chatting with him, joking to try and make sure the lineman is comfortable – something Salter does with all his subjects, whether he’s photographing women in Uganda. , celebrities in Miami or star athletes like Serena Williams or Aaron Judge.
“The portrait is a very intimate shoot. … I have to get something out of a subject. And that doesn’t require me to talk about game stats or anything like that,” Salter says. “I just try to keep it light so they can forget they’re actually at a photoshoot.”
In this case, the conversation led Salter and Karras (who is 6’4″ and 310 pounds) to a “muscle-off,” a casual competition that included the two posing for a photo together to show off.
And when Burrow arrived soon after, the banter continued as Salter wondered how many push-ups he could do (the 25-year-old quarterback is on the short side, weighing about 80 pounds less than Karras though he be the same size). Although Salter admits he couldn’t tease Burrow too much, the guy’s hair is perfect, Salter says. “I don’t know what gel he has, but it makes his hair look perfect.”
But ultimately, the helmet had to go on so Salter could get action (or rather, “implied action,” he says). The photographer himself had already taken video running out of the end zone – because how many people can pick up a football and run around an NFL stadium? — before it was Burrow’s turn to perform on camera. Having been lucky enough to have a tall assistant that day, Salter had already tested the lighting to be sure it was ready for Burrow’s arrival, and the work really began.
Burrow and Karras posed in uniform (some with their helmets, some without) for the majority of the photos since they were environmental portraits, Salter says. Whether it’s Karras leaning in to break the ball or Burrow throwing his arm back to mimic his passing motion, this type of setup allows Salter to capture the anticipation of a game packed with action while simultaneously presenting an in-depth image of the subject.
“In a way, it’s a bit surreal. …You want to create that connection with the person watching the [cover]. You have to have that sense of drama, when you can get something out of a person’s eyes. And you know, the action of the game, you can’t always do that. The action of the game is about capturing the physicality of the moment, which is another kind of beauty to capture on film,” says Salter.
Salter’s favorite photo from the session was a moment when Burrow and Karras apparently forgot they were posing for pictures. They were seated facing each other, criss-crossing the applesauce under the lighting equipment, with their helmets raised in front of them and their hands on their knees.
“This is [Burrow’s] center, you know, is the guy who gets things done and protects it,” Salter says. “It was just a good moment of two guys kicking and talking to each other.”
You can read Conor Orr’s cover story on Burrow here.
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