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He may not have the name recognition of Arnold and Ali (whose youthful glory he chronicles in his latest book, Titans (Dalton Watson Fine Books, 2009, www.daltonwatson.com), but Al Satterwhite is a Nikon Legend and a genuine heavyweight among contemporary photographers.  ‘For decades, Satterwhite has been at the top of the photo pyramid in journalism, advertising and film,’ writes William McKeen, pop-culture critic and Chair of the Department of Journalism at the University of Florida.  McKeen adds that saying Al has done well in photography is ‘a little like saying that Brando kid did OK in the movies.’

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© Al Satterwhite

A self-taught original, Al Satterwhite is a ‘My Way’ kind of guy who started out with a love of photography in the 60s and has kept the flame alive through four decades in a turbulent profession.  He is also a wry raconteur who rattles off photographic insights and celebrity anecdotes at a rate that rivals Ali’s hands and feet.  During an illuminating hour with TGP, Al discussed his time with the Titans, his Tom Sawyer start in photography, his ability to move freely between editorial and advertising and film-making (see interview), and his belief in the value of being self-taught (see tips).
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© Al Satterwhite


Al started working with Ali in the late 60s and Arnold in the early 70s.  ‘Photojournalism in those days was fantastic,’ says Al, who photographed Ali in training for his epic bout with Joe Frazier and Arnold during his youthful days on Muscle Beach, long before he became either the Terminator or the Guv.   ‘Rarely have you seen pictures as intimate as these images of Ali and Arnold,’ writes culture-critic McKeen.  ‘These photographs reveal their souls.’

A couple of pussycats
Sometimes working for several top magazines at the same time, Al enjoyed unfettered access to his subjects.  ‘You didn't have all the handlers running around like they do nowadays,’ he says.  ‘When I shot Ali, the magazine would basically call his trainer (Angelo Dundee) and say we're sending a guy down.  I would show up (at the gym) and they’d be like: ‘Hi.  How are you?   Whatever you want.’  Angie was a really easy guy to work with, as was Ali.  They didn't ask me any questions or blah, blah, blah.  With Arnold, I had his home phone number.   I would call him and say: ‘Hey, how about Thursday?  Would that work for you?’  Now you have to call the agent who calls the PR person.  You have to go through all that crap, and then they want to review all the images.  That wouldn't fly too well with me.’

 

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© Al Satterwhite


Although his charismatic subjects are famed for egos as overpowering as their physiques, Al calls them a couple of pussycats.    ‘I ran into a few ego problems in Hollywood,’ he says, ‘but those guys were pussycats.  They were really easy to get on with.  Somebody could stop them on the street and get an autograph and it was no big deal.  They were like normal people doing what they were doing.  Now they’ve kind of transcended that.  They’re way beyond everything.’

 

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© Al Satterwhite


Asked for anecdotes illustrating the gentler side of the titans, Al recalls an encounter between Arnold Schwarzenegger and persistent paparazzi in the weight pen on Muscle Beach.  ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger and I were out there taking some pictures, and this paparazzi guy showed up.  So Arnold stopped what he was doing for me, and he flexed for the guy couple of times.  Then he went back to doing what we were doing.  But the guy hung around and kept shooting.  Finally, Arnold turned and said, in his thick Austrian accent: ‘You vant me to stick that camera up your asss??’  It was funny because a guy that big can intimidate just by looking at you.  But it was all bluster. He wasn’t really going to do anything.   And the same with Ali.  He was bigger, taller than Arnold, very impressive.  But he never came across to me as angry or using it in any way. And both of them loved kids, loved to sit down and talk with them.’

 

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Arnold Schwarzenegger photo © Al Satterwhite


Of frogs and photography
Al Satterwhite has lived on both coasts and in between but he is a child of the South--born in Biloxi and raised in Gulfport, Florida.  The hitherto untold story of his start in photography holds more than a hint of Tom Sawyer.  It also shows how early he started shooting on assignment.  Al first picked up a camera in junior high to document the dissection of a frog for his ninth-grade biology class.   


‘Somebody had these three huge frogs that were like a foot long,’ he recalls, ‘and for some bizarre reason, we decided that we would like to anesthetize them, cut them open, take a look inside, sew them back together and put them back in the pond.  Don’t ask me who thought this up but it seemed like a great idea at the time.  We had surgical masks and little operating tables; and the teacher said like: ‘Hey, Satterwhite, you’re going to take pictures of all this.’

 
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© Al Satterwhite


Al got on board with the project and convinced his mom to buy him a camera at Sears.  ‘It was one of those little kits that comes in plastic and has a camera and six flashbulbs and two rolls of film.  I didn’t know what the hell I was doing but I shot on Kodachrome because that's what came with the kit.  The pictures were over-exposed but the experience just sort of got me going.’

Hank Aaron 180B 5A
© Al Satterwhite


Two of the frogs survived the experiment, plunged back into their pond and swam away, apparently none the worse for wear.  As for Al, he plunged deeper into photography as soon as he reached high school.  ‘We had a school paper and yearbook with a little staff of two photographers and a darkroom.  We did all the activities, clubs, gatherings, ball games.  I really got into that because it was fun, and you got to hang out with everybody.’


Al’s professional career got off to a fast start when the Saint Petersburg Times visited his school, looking for photographers and writers to contribute to their new high school edition.  ‘You only had to take a couple of pictures a week but you got to hang out at their lab or with their staff photographers.  It was just a mind-blowing experience,’ he says.  ‘They had either just won a Pulitzer or were on their way to winning one.  I’d carry light stands or do anything just to be around these guys and watch.’

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© Al Satterwhite


Despite his enthusiasm for photography, Al graduated high school with his sights set on a higher calling.  He wanted to be a pilot.  For more on his journey from aerospace to advertising and beyond, read our interview.  For Al’s thoughts on being your own best teacher, see his tips.



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