In the late 1960s, Michael Zagaris entered law school at Santa Clara University with ambitions for political office at a time of national turbulence. Robert Kennedy declared his campaign for president, and Zagaris, who had interned for him during his final year at George Washington University, volunteered for campaign work.
That campaign work took him to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968. He slipped on what he thought was cooking oil in the kitchen, but it was Kennedy's blood. He was feet away from where Kennedy had been assassinated.
"I have no words to describe the dislocation that followed," Zagaris writes. "I only know that my life—and the lives of many contemporaries—took a vicious barrel roll. … Needless to say, I was done with law school."
The experience led Zagaris, who grew up in Northern California and started photographing College of the Pacific football players as a preteen (and later hanging out with the Green Bay Packers during their stays at Rickey's Studio Inn in Palo Alto when they were in the Bay Area playing the 49ers) down new paths. He dropped acid and dove headfirst into the antiwar and civil rights movements, as well as San Francisco's growing music scene. It was a conversation with Eric Clapton that pushed Zagaris toward a career in photography.
"He said my writing was 'all right' but added, nodding to the proofs, 'You should be doing this for a gig.' Of course, that was it," Zagaris writes.
By early 1972, after years of rock photography during which he photographed musicians like the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin and Peter Frampton, Zagaris found himself missing sports. A football and baseball player in high school and college, he missed the locker room interactions and camaraderie of sports. He called the San Francisco 49ers' PR director, passing himself off as "Michael Herbert, editor of Football Digest," and told him the publication would be sending a young photographer named Michael Zagaris to cover the team.
The ploy earned Zagaris a season field pass, and by 1979 he was approaching then-new 49ers head coach Bill Walsh at the team's Redwood City practice and training complex with the idea to historically document the team through photographs and unlimited access.
"I was very fortunate that Bill Walsh was named head coach and that he was not just an academic, but a historian and had a keen appreciation of history and imagery as history," Zagaris told The Six Fifty. "There's no way I would've had that access in Green Bay with Vince Lombardi."
That 49ers history and moments throughout six decades of NFL photography are on display in Zagaris' new photo book, "Field of Play: 60 Years of NFL Photography" (with text by longtime sportswriter Steve Cassady). There are plenty of action shots and moments from big games, but the book is especially notable for the side of football that the average fan doesn't ordinarily see: the pain and medical procedures players endure, the postgame dejection after a loss, the coach giving a halftime locker room speech.
The Six Fifty spoke with Zagaris, who also works as the team photographer for the Oakland Athletics, in advance of his appearance at Books Inc. Palo Alto at 7 p.m. Nov. 30 with Tim Ryan, former NFL player and current radio analyst for the 49ers on KNBR 104.5/680. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
The Six Fifty: How did this book come together, and what was the rationale behind doing it now? I imagine it must've been an intensive process looking back through 60 years of photographs.
Michael Zagaris: I'd been thinking about the book for a long time, but I wanted to really wait until I had a body of work to showcase. The thing that really helped get this moving was the pandemic. I had basically a year and a half where I was pretty much closeted here. I was able to go through a voluminous collection of photographs from when I first started taking pictures in 1956 at the College of the Pacific when I didn't know I was going to be a photographer. When you've got 60 years of material. that's a lot to plow through. (Sports photographer) Brad Mangin was here 10 to 15 times, Steve (Cassady) flew in from New York three different times. One thing about this book a lot of people overlooked because it's a book of photos is the writing. Steve Cassady wrote most of it, and his writing is very much of the period, he's a very Gonzo-esque journalist. Nobody knows football the way Steve does.
The Six Fifty: What has been your favorite element of football to shoot over your career? I know your book especially zeroes in on off-the-field interactions.
Michael Zagaris: I wanted this book to be a true picture of what it's like to be a player. It's not just playing in the game or practicing; it's the camaraderie, it's the locker room, it's the bench. I wanted to approach this book much like a photojournalist as opposed to just someone shooting sports. It was a combination of my journey as a player in high school and college and as a photojournalist, and I wanted to bring that to the forefront. I wanted the book to be real; I wanted the viewer of the book to feel like you were a player. I love my action pictures, but the behind-the-scenes shots, the shots on the bench that really portray the agony, the drama – that to me was essential.
The Six Fifty: The Niners practiced in Redwood City for decades through the 1980s. How would you describe the team's relationship with the Peninsula and its fans back then?
Michael Zagaris: They were very close. Many of the players were very close to people on the Peninsula. At lunchtime, Canyon Inn would come down and bring lunch. A lot of the players lived right around the facility in Redwood City, Palo Alto, Menlo Park. It was a different time. Players weren't making the money they're making today; they were doing all right, but unless you were a star, you were making probably better money than most people would make at that time but you had a relatively short career. They had a very tight relationship with the area; a couple times we'd have scrimmages at Sequoia High School and we'd fill the stands. Sometimes when the weather was bad and our field was muddy we'd practice at Menlo College. Ben Parks, who was the head coach at Menlo-Atherton (High School), he'd be at the facility all the time. The Peninsula and the 49ers, it was one and the same.
The Six Fifty: Do you have any particular favorite subjects or moments you've shot in sports? Least favorite?
Michael Zagaris: I have so many (favorites). Over a 60-year period where do you start? There are a number of games, but the day of The Catch was an incredible day. Growing up with the team, that was the first time we were actually gong to the Super Bowl when we beat Dallas. When you see the famous photo of The Catch with Dwight Clark, Walter looss shot that. I was on the other side of the goal post. I have the shot, but it's a wide-angle shot. I remember going into the end zone shooting and going back to the bench with Dwight and chronicling the celebration, and he turned and hugged me and I yelled into his earhole, 'Way to fuck me up, I was waiting for the 18 BOB (play)!' and we both laughed.
Over 60 years and with 20 games a year, you're going to have some games where you just didn't have a great game and you certainly missed pictures, but I learned early on you can't obsess over that: You have to move on to the next picture. Maybe the next picture will be the best you've ever taken; you have to focus on the present. There was a shot I wish I would've gotten after we lost the Super Bowl to the Ravens. I came in and (former 49ers general manager) Trent Baalke was lying facedown on a stairwell just in despair, but our PR guy at that point was Bob Lange and he was overcontrolling and didn't want you to shoot anything that might be controversial. At that point in time I wanted that shot.
The Six Fifty: How have athletes and coaches reacted to your behind-the-scenes access over the years? In his foreword in the book, Joe Montana says he always knew when you were around except when you were working as the team photographer because of how well you blended in.
Michael Zagaris: Part of that was because I'd played the game myself. I was never in awe of the athletes because I had been one, certainly not on their level but I knew they were people. When I first went to Bill (Walsh) proposing I had total access, I knew once you're there every day and blend in, nobody's gonna be mugging for the camera. I might walk around with a jock strap and a shirt on and guys were like, 'Z what are you doing?' and then I'm no different than they are. The biggest thing is trust; they know they can be who they are and you're not going to take these pictures and use them in an exploitative or sensational way. If you trust somebody, you're more apt to be yourself and that's what I wanted to capture more than anything. I wanted to capture the real game.
The Six Fifty: How has the level of access changed in sports photography over the years?
Michael Zagaris: It's not just in sports, it's all-encompassing. There's not the access there was and there's less access each year. I'm very fortunate to have been born when and where I was born and been with the teams I've been with. The access I've had in sports has been unparalleled and it's been going away. Sports and music, they've always to me been the coolest things. Over time, what's happened is all the cool things the corporations come in and usurp. To get access it's paid-for access and it's controlled by the leagues, by the record labels, by the teams. There's very limited access even if you pay for it. That's been the biggest change of all and when there's no access, I don't wanna be apart of that. I feel bad for all the young people coming up, they have so much enthusiasm and talent and to be thwarted at every level by the people that run the leagues or the record labels or movie studios telling you, 'You can only do what we say and we own those pictures, and here's a quarter, go have a milkshake and you're lucky you have a job.' (Former 49ers head coach) Jim Harbaugh thought (my photography) was a distraction; we had a number of conversations and a throwdown about that. We talked 20 minutes and he did his usual and said it was a distraction. I've been with presidents and rock stars, and one of my best friends (photojournalist) Pete Souza was in the Situation Room when they took down Bin Laden, and you're telling me this is a distraction?
The Six Fifty: What are some of the crazier things you've seen shooting professional athletes and rock stars?
Michael Zagaris: When Peter Frampton was on the field, we'd opened the season in Tampa and it was 95 degrees with 92% humidity. Midway through the game we're on a knee in the end zone and Peter lights up a Sherman (cigarette) and a security guard says, 'Hey man, you can't be smoking that shit on the field.' At halftime, the team goes into the locker room, and Peter is sitting smoking (where the luggage is kept in the bottom of the bus). One of the video guys goes, 'What's this like for you?' since Peter hadn't been on the field before, and he said, 'Apart from the fact that it's hot as hell, I'm Zagaris' roadie and they won't let me smoke on the field, I'm having a great time.'
The Six Fifty: Are there any musicians today that you'd want to photograph?
Michael Zagaris: I covered Peter Frampton's second-to-last concert ever in America; I've shot a few Gary Clark concerts, but it's not the way it was in the '70s and '80s. I was doing rock and roll very much the way I was doing football and baseball: It was total immersion. When I was shooting the band you become the band. I covered that the same way I covered football; I wanted to give you the feeling you were in the band. I was doing the same things they were doing. If I were to go out on the road now, it's a different era. You don't find the drug use you found then, and I wanted to have the experience of being in the band so I was doing all that. If I did that now, I'd be dead.
The Six Fifty: You're also the team photographer for the Oakland A's. How does shooting baseball compare to football?
Michael Zagaris: They're very different in feel and flow but again, I played baseball from Little League to high school through college and it's just a different season, it's a different time but in many respects you're still hanging with your guys, you're in the locker room, clubhouse, dugout. In many respects it's kept me young; it's like never having to grow up. Baseball is a little slower, more pastoral. When I'm shooting baseball, as soon as I walk into the clubhouse I'm immersed in that world.
The Six Fifty: What do you hope people take away from the book?
Michael Zagaris: You can have 50 people look at this book and take away 50 different things. A lot depends on who you are and what level you're into the book from the point of view of being a fan, a fan of photography, a fan of the era because this book isn't just about football. You get the feel of that era and what it was like. Depending on where you were when a lot of this happened, looking at pictures will bring back moments in time. For some people the stories and pictures will be an education. There's something there for everyone.
Zagaris will be at Books Inc. Palo Alto, 74 Town & Country Village in Palo Alto, at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 30. Visit their website for more information or to purchase the book. Follow him on Instagram @michaelzagaris.