Interview with NFL & USFL Photographer Jim Turner
You may not recognize the name, but chances are you've seen his work. For over 3 decades, sports photographer Jim Turner has captured moments with his camera from countless games including five Super Bowls & all three USFL seasons. His photos have also appeared on trading cards from Topps, Pro Set, Score, Upper Deck and Fleer. Recently, Jim was nice enough to answer a few questions and share some stories with me...
80sFootballCards: Thanks Jim, for taking some time to tell us about your career! How and when did you first get involved in the sports photography field?
Jim Turner: As I was growing up, I was always a Yankees fan. When I was in my late teens, as soon as tickets went on sale, I used to head over the Stadium to buy tickets for about a dozen games throughout the year. I always was able to get seats located in the first row, right behind the screen, behind home plate. (There were never TV cameras there in those days.) At one game, a newspaper photographer came down and asked if he could work an inning in my box? I said sure, but first I need to look through that long lens you’re using. He let me and I immediately fell in love with the profession. I bought my first 35mm camera and a 300mm lens at Sears, believe it or not. BTW... Once I started shooting professionally, I got to shoot right alongside of that same gentleman who was actually a photographer for the New York Post.
80sFootballCards: That's awesome you got to work alongside that same gentleman later on! Who were some of the teams and clients you got to work for?
Jim Turner: Throughout my career, I worked both freelance and also for a few different teams and leagues. I covered events for a various number of clients. My main client was NFL Photos and I worked as their Official NY Stringer for both the Giants and the Jets. Other sports publishers that I worked for included: The Sporting News, Inside Sports Magazine, New York Sports Magazine (A very large circulation weekly newspaper in NJ), Baseball, Football and Basketball Digest Magazines and for a number of Sports Annuals published by Lexington Library. I was also the exclusive photographer for Woodford Publishing which was licensed by The New York Giants to publish their Team Yearbook for them from 1985 thru 93.
As a team photographer I worked for: The NJ Sports & Exposition Authority 1986-88 (Operator of the Meadowlands Sports Complex)
The USFL NJ Generals – 1983-85 The NY Yankees – 1987-88 The NJ Devils – 1988-95
I was also a major photo contributor to: The NJ Nets, Rutgers University Athletics, Iona College Athletics, The Atlantic-10 Collegiate Athletic Conference and The Northeast Collegiate Athletic Conference.
80sFootballCards: When did you first get involved with working for the New York Giants?
Jim Turner: I was a Giants season ticket holder since their days at Yale Bowl. My seat location in Giants Stadium was in the 4th row located in the end zone. I used to take pictures from my seat and those photos were quite instrumental in being able to gain access to the sideline as an accredited photographer. As it turned out, I also ended up licensing several of those images to the Giants. After showing the Giants some of those samples, they also felt it would be to their benefit to have a local photographer (I was born and raised in East Rutherford) that they could call on at a moment’s notice. I was issued a single-game credential to cover my first Giants game, a preseason tilt vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1978. After the Giants saw the images that I made at that game, they issued me a season’s credential and I was on the sideline to photograph every home game until 2009. I missed the final four games of that season after being admitted to the hospital for open heart surgery due to a defective heart valve. I returned to the sidelines for the 2010 season, played in the new Met Life Stadium. It was truly a great run and I enjoyed every single minute of it.
80sFootballCards: Wow! That definitely was a great run! What was your favorite moment from those years on the sidelines?
Jim Turner: Thanks to my relationship with NFL Photos and the NY Giants, I had the good fortune to be able to photograph a total of five Super Bowls. By far, my most memorable moment came when I covered Super Bowl XXI at the end of the 1986 season - the Giants' first Super Bowl victory. I spent the week in the Los Angeles area and stayed at the NFL headquarters hotel in Anaheim. While I was there, I was introduced to many of my NFL counterparts (NFL Stringers) from the other teams. I was fortunate enough to have had a number of images published in the Super Bowl program that year and several of the photographers offered nice comments on my work. I really began to feel that I was now part of the group. Many of them are legendary photographers that I have always looked up to. My very best memory of that Super Bowl XXI came after the game had ended and many of those same photographers that I had met during the week came over to me before I left the field to congratulate me. I smiled and told them all that I had nothing to do with the team’s victory.
80sFootballCards: Could you talk about your time as the USFL's NJ Generals photographer?
Jim Turner: I actually became Team Photographer of the Generals due to a prior relationship with the very first team that granted me photographers’ access, The New Jersey Nets. Their GM at the time was a gentleman by the name of Charlie Theokas. Charlie resigned from the Nets in 1981. I attended his small farewell gathering held at a local eatery. At the conclusion of the affair, I wished him the best of luck and that I hoped all would work out well for him in the future. He told me that everything would be just fine and that something was also in store for me in the near future. Shortly thereafter, Theokas was named as General Manager of the new USFL team, The NJ Generals. I was on hand to photograph the press conference for the weekly newspaper that I worked for when that official announcement was made. Charlie told me that I would be The Generals’ Team Photographer.
The time that I spent with the Generals was one of the best times of my life. It also opened many door for me as well. The Generals really treated me as a part of the team. At the start of training camp, it was still very much winter in NJ. During the time, prior to “indoor practice bubbles,” the teams from the northern part of the country were forced to head to Florida for training camp. For three seasons, I got to spend about 3 weeks in Orlando, FL in February. During the first two weeks of training camp, I got all the photos needed for publication in the team’s media guide. I returned home to process the photos and provide all the head shots and other photos to the printer.
Since I traveled with the team to cover all of the road games, I returned to Florida to be with the team to travel with them prior to the first game. Our second game was also usually in Florida, so the team stayed and practiced there for another week before heading back home. One funny story took place at the end of the first season in 1983. Our team’s final game was against the Boston Breakers and was played at Nickerson Field on the campus of Boston U. on a steamy Fourth of July weekend. It had to be 120 degrees on that old AstroTurf field. Instead of flying to Boston, we had bused up on Saturday for our Sunday afternoon game. Many of the players decided to fly home from Boston after the game, but a number did return to NJ on the buses. The buses departed the stadium for our 4-hour drive home. It’s now about 5:00 and the players haven’t eaten since pregame meal at 10am. The Director of Player Personnel instructed the driver to pull into the Burger King parking lot on the corner. He ordered about 80 Whoppers along with enough fries and drinks to go around. That Burger King manager is still smiling.
During the 1984 season, I was on the sideline with the Generals who were in Jacksonville to face the Bulls. Over 73,000 fans showed up on a magnificent day to see Herschel Walker who was quite the local favorite. Apparently the photo editors from Sports Illustrated turned on their TVs and saw what a glorious day it was in Jacksonville and called the Generals’ PR Director who was in the press box. He ran down to the sideline just prior to kick off, to relay a message to me that SI wanted to assign me to cover Herschel Walker for them during that game for an upcoming feature story. They ended up using some of my photos inside the edition when they ran the story about few weeks later
I also remember a Memorial Day, Monday night game when the Generals played the Blitz at Soldier Field in Chicago. It was unusually cold for that time of year and it rained steadily during the entire first half. The weather forced the 4,000 or so die-hard fans to seek shelter from the wind-swept rain by sitting under those huge columns at the top of the stadium. On camera, it looked as if the Stadium was totally empty. As we got back to the bus after the game, QB Brian Sipe stopped and said to me that at one point, when the team had the ball goal to go on the two yard line, he was looking for me. He wanted me to get a picture of him motioning with his arms to try to silence the crowd behind him.
80sFootballCards: Did you get a chance to work any of the USFL Championships?
Jim Turner: I never was assigned by the league to cover any of the Championship games. However, I ended up shooting at the 1984 game in Tampa as a result of winning the USFL Photo Contest for the best color action photo. The prize consisted of air transportation and an all expense paid weekend in Tampa for the game. I was also presented a new Canon camera on the field at the 50 yard line, just prior to kickoff.
I also shot the 1985 game played at Giants Stadium since that was my house. I really wasn’t into doing that game because at that time, the league’s fate was already pretty much known.
80sFootballCards: You also did some work for the USFL Kickoff Game Programs, right?
Jim Turner: Correct. Obviously, prior to the inaugural season, the USFL had no photography at all to use in their initial editions of USFL KICKOFF. Their editor hired me to travel with her to visit a number of Florida training sites to provide much needed photography to go along with the interviews she conducted. We started in Orlando with the Generals and Breakers, who both trained at the University of Central Florida. We then traveled to Deland to see the Stars who were at Stetson and ended up in Dayton with the Washington Federals. They practiced on a grass practice field right near the Speedway, where roar of the engines of the cars during practice sessions for the Daytona 500 were drowning out the Feds coaches trying to instruct their players. The next day we took the long journey south to Tampa to visit Steve Spurrier and the Bandits. Once the games started being played, the league often called and asked me to shoot specific players for them. The USFL also assigned me to cover games in Philadelphia when my Generals schedule permitted.
80sFootballCards: Do you collect sports cards at all?
Jim Turner: As a kid, I was always buying baseball cards. My neighbor used to ask me to remove the soda bottles from their house and I was welcome to keep the deposit I collected at the store. I loaded the bottles into my wagon and took them to the local deli and turned the bottles into baseball cards at 5 cents a pack. I still have some and I’ve even sold a few on eBay. I really wish I had all those that my Mom threw away. I never collected cards as an adult except when the companies used to send me sets where I had work published.
80sFootballCards: That's awesome they sent you sets! Which ones did you receive and do you still have them?
Jim Turner: I do still have the card sets that were sent to me where I had a number of images used. But I have sold off a few on eBay. Most are Pro Set NFL and NHL as well as Parkhurst. These brands don't seem to have too much value. I did sell a couple of Topps USFL sets that I had. They were more valuable.
80sFootballCards: Along those lines, do you have any keepsakes or memorabilia you picked up from the teams you worked for?
Jim Turner: I was like a pack rat. I had media guides, yearbooks, game tickets sheets from the Generals, most of which were sold on eBay. I still have a bunch of sideline photo passes that I still post on eBay every now and then. I picked up some autographs over the years as well. I sold off 3 - NJ Generals footballs on eBay as well as a couple of NY Giants balls from the 80's. I still have a number of autographed baseballs from my days with the Yankees including a couple from Old Timers day. While I was working for the Yankees, Dave Winfield came up to me and said he needed a good action photo of himself printed as a 16x20. When I brought him the print, he reached up in his locker for his wallet and I said to him, just sign a bat for me. He did and I still have that item. I also have a number of the Giants team yearbooks that I provided the photographer for from 1985 thru 1993. I also have the Yankees yearbook from 1988 that has a head shot of me in the staff section, as associate team photographer. About 5 years ago, I after becoming an empty-nester, my wife and I sold our 4-bedroom, high-taxed home and rented a condo nearby. Without having the room I used to have, I stated selling everything off.
80sFootballCards: Could you describe your work with Topps Trading Cards? How exactly does that work, do you submit photographs for them to choose from? Could you explain that process?
Jim Turner: Knowing that I had been covering the USFL regularly, Topps actually reached out to the Generals to get in touch with me when they decided they were going to produce their USFL set. That was the only time I had ever really dealt directly with them. Topps worked with several other photographers in my area who were friends on mine, so I never sought to do business with them. NFL Photos provided an extensive amount of my work to Pro Set. Every now and then, other companies such as Upper Deck, Topps, Score and Fleer would source some of my images through NFL Photos to fill in some holes.
80sFootballCards: Do you know how many cards from the 80s featured your photography and do you know any specific cards that feature your work?
Jim Turner: I really have no idea how many of my images were used for cards. During the seven seasons that I worked for the Devils, I was approached by the photographer from the Boston Bruins, Steve Babineau. He was a major supplier of photography to several different sports card companies as well as a number of hockey equipment licensees. The way that the NHL schedule was set up, the Devils and Bruins were in different divisions and played against different teams. Steve really needed images of the players from the teams in my division as well as the teams from the Western Conference that we would see only once a year. He actually represented me as my agent and sold many of my images to companies such as Pro Set, Parkhurst, Upper Deck, Score and others. He also helped to set up a deal for me to sell the image that featured Scott Sevens and Steve Yzerman from the ’95 Stanley Cup finals for the cover of the EA Sports game.
80sFootballCards: I actually found a card that I believe was made from a photo you took. You got a shot of the Philadelphia Stars John Bunting on the bench that looks like it made the 1984 Topps USFL set.
Jim Turner: Yes, that's definitely my photograph that was used for that Topps Bunting card.
80sFootballCards: Did you ever have a “holy cow, that’s…..insert sports legend here” moment??
Jim Turner: I was a big Yankees fan as a kid growing up during the 60’s and my hero was Mickey Mantle. While working for the Yankees in 1987, I had the opportunity to meet “The Mick” who was a broadcaster for the local Cable TV channel that did all of the games. On Old Timers’ Day, I was like a kid in a candy store. Ford, Boyer, Richardson, Moose, Elston Howard, Lopez and more. I got to meet and photograph all of them along with Reggie Jackson, Bucky Dent, Willie Randolph, Nettles, Lyle, & Rivers.
80sFootballCards: Did you ever have any direct interaction with any players, and if so, are there any stories you could share?
Jim Turner: Throughout my career, I always maintained a strict business relationship with the players and never really got personally involved with anyone. However, back in the early 80’s, there was a local restaurant/bar that was owned by former Giants player, Doug Van Horn. I would stop there for drinks or dinner once in a while and after Doug got to know me, he sometimes hired me to provide photography of events at his place. He ended up introducing me to a number of players. A few that I would say that I became somewhat friendly with were: Doug Kotar, Harry Carson, Beasley Reese and Brad Van Pelt.
While I worked for the New Jersey Devils, I became pretty friendly with Martin Brodeur. My photo location was from a box, adjacent to the Devils bench and we sat right next to each other during the games he was not playing in during the early part of his career. He obviously had a certain affection for sports photographers since his Dad, Denis, was the iconic, long-time team photographer of the Montreal Canadians. Denis also worked for the Expos.
Another memorable moment of my career came during the locker room celebration after the Devils won their first Stanley Cup in 1995. Denis insisted that I jump up and sit on the training room table with Marty to drink beer from the cup, while he photographed us together.
80sFootballCards: Do you still work with professional sports teams? If not, when was the last year and was there a reason you left the field?
Jim Turner: I no longer work with any of the professional sports teams. Toward the end of my career and after the digital generation came about in 2003, it became increasingly difficult to make sales as an independent photographer. Agencies like Getty Images, WireImage and others were offering work a rock-bottom prices as they competed against each other, which forced out many independents. Both Getty and WI also provided imagery to the NFL and all of the teams for free as per their contract with the league.
After NFL Photos closed up shop, I worked for a short time as a contributor with WireImage (which later ended up being sold to Getty). I was able to determine pretty quickly that was financially a waste of time for me and I terminated my agreement. I continued to work as a freelance contributor to the NY Giants until 2010 which ended up being my final season after 32 years on the sideline. Over the 32 years, I built relationships with both the New York Giants and the NFL that were absolutely fabulous and I truly loved every minute!
80sFootballCards: Amazing career! What are you doing these days with your photography?
Jim Turner: Today, I’m semi-retired. I continue to photograph sports because I still enjoy doing it. You can see some of my current work and available services at my website http://turnersportsphotos.com/. I am also selling a limited number of the original 35mm slides I had created throughout my career along with some other sports memorabilia that I had accumulated. You can find my eBay store here: https://www.ebay.com/str/tspsportsimagesandcollectibles.
I no longer have the desire to do professional sports as a result of how that business has changed. Some of my peers have asked me if I miss it. I always reply that I don’t. Photographing both for several high schools and for a number of different youth organizations keeps me doing what I enjoy. Many amateur photographers that I meet at those events have a dream of photographing the pro sports. I am able to get the same satisfaction by making a great image of a 12 year old hauling in a fingertip grab, as I could if it were Odell Beckham Jr.