Imagine, for a moment, that you just witnessed one of the greatest moments in sports history, the kind of thing that you could tell right away will be remembered forever; Ray Allen’s three-pointer in Game 6, Kirk Gibson’s home run in the World Series, LeBron James Game 7 block, Dwight Clark’s catch, etc. There’s a mental image that becomes associated with that moment, something that you really can only see.
For legendary photographer Andy Bernstein, all of these moments are viewed through a camera lens. He sees them, sure, but he doesn’t get a chance to take them in until later on when he’s going through the film. That’s the life of a photographer, one in which the objective is to capture what is taking place.
“When you push the button, the shutter opens and closes in that instant, that millisecond it is recording that moment in time.” Bernstein told Dime. “If I’m seeing that moment in time through the viewfinder, through the lens, or even God forbid just taking my eye off of the camera, and then I missed it. It will never happen again and that moment is gone. I can’t recreate it. I can’t ask him to do it again.”
Bernstein is an action photographer. The moments he captures are quick and can be over in an instant. It’s what makes so much of his work so impressive. Go through a database of photos of the average NBA game, you’ll get a shot here and there of someone dunking, but the majority are still frame moments from a break in the action.
He loves capturing dunks and the jubilation someone feels immediately after winning a title. His most iconic moment? There’s plenty, but one moment probably stands above it all.
“Kirk Gibson hits the home run in 88.” Bernstein says. “Something that told me before that ninth inning, ‘You know what? You better just get your wide angle lens and clash together and another camera to put it next to, because you know something could happen in the bottom of the ninth, it’s a World Series game. I was the first one at home plate that got there when Kirk touched home plate. I got there before the rest of the team, and that’s my picture of him high fiving Orel Hershiser at home plate that was on the cover of … I think it was the Sporting News or something that week.”
Not only did Bernstein capture what ended up being an iconic moment, but there was a personal connection to Gibson’s homer. Growing up in New York, Bernstein’s family of Dodgers fans felt betrayed when the team left Brooklyn for Los Angeles. It wasn’t until Bernstein took a job with the team as their photographer that his family flipped back to loving the franchise — his Dad told him the happiest moment of his life was when he got hired to be the Dodgers team photographer.
The Gibson home run is a perfect example of what made Bernstein’s action shots so impressive: He was always ready.
“If I hadn’t (been ready) and Kirk hits that home run, I’d be fumbling around putting lenses on cameras, loading film,” Bernstein says. “And then by the time I get out there, that moment is completely done, preparation, attention to detail, knowledge of your craft and your equipment. You have to have a sixth sense as to what is going to happen and what you’re going to do to get there. So all of those things combined add up to years and years of experience of being in those situations”
Bernstein speaks in a very professional manner until you ask him about his craft and his work. The shield comes down briefly and a little bit of excitement can be heard in his voice. It’s obvious that photography is his passion, but he brings an intensity and an eagerness to master his craft that is reminiscent of some athletes. In fact, Bernstein recently wrote a book with an athlete: Kobe Bryant.
“Kobe has a great quote where he says if you’re not obsessed with what you do, we don’t speak the same language,” Bernstein says. “He and I honestly have been speaking the same language since that first day we met, through this sort of unsaid bonding over our obsession to what we do.”
While Bernstein is most well known for his action shots, it’s his relationship with the athletes he shoots that sets him apart. Photographers are anonymous, they need to get in and out without being seen. When you know a photographer is there, that usually means they’re doing something wrong. As a result, it should be very difficult to form relationships with athletes, but Bernstein has built up a trust with athletes like Kobe over the years.
Bernstein being able to build these relationships has gotten him exclusive photos of not just Bryant, but Chris Paul and Blake Griffin after the birth of Lob City, and Shaquille O’Neal shortly after he arrived to the Lakers, and NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon. Being able to connect with people is a skill, and it’s something Bernstein has mastered.
“I’m not there to make them look bad in any way, shape, or form.” Bernstein says. “But I think they appreciate that, and as my career has gone on and on, the guys who have come in later recognized that, hey, this guy’s legit, he shot [Michael] Jordan, he shot Magic [Johnson], he did this behind the scenes stuff with Kobe. So it’s kind of like a built-in cache that I have now.”
Bernstein has experienced so many different great athletes in his career, but when it came time to make a book with his photos, he knew exactly who he had in mind. Bryant was different, making it an obvious choice for him.
“I’m fortunate to be around this iconic athlete, Kobe Bryant from his entire career, from fresh-faced rookie at 18 when I first met him to retirement after his final game, which was an epic storybook finish,” Bernstein recalls. “In the 20 years in between is probably close to half a million or so photos. So as he was approaching retirement, I was thinking about how there was this big archive material house at the NBA archives in New Jersey that really hasn’t seen light a day, only the tip of the iceberg. It’s never been published, and wouldn’t it be cool to kind of give fans of Kobe a chance to see everything else or at least some of it?”
The Mamba Mentality could best be summarized as the penultimate moment for Bernstein’s relationship with Bryant. The future Hall of Fame inductee is going to have dozens of books written about him over the rest of his life, but none of them are going to feature the exclusive photos that only Bernstein can provide.
“I approached Kobe about doing a book, kind of a coffee table book.” Bernstein says. “He listened and he was very respectful, but he said, ‘You know what? If we’re going to do a book together, I’m happy to collaborate and want to collaborate with you, but we’re going to do the kind of book I want to do.’ I said, ‘Okay, that sounds great. What do you got in mind?’ And The Mamba Mentality was born at that moment.”
Bernstein has built relationships with stars across the world of sports, proving that he will get the best shots at the perfect moments. From Magic Johnson to LeBron James, he’s seen it all, but no one has connected with him quite like Bryant.
“I saw a lot in him that I could really relate to, even though I was 20 years older than him and still am, but more than anything, it’s his obsession, and that’s really the root of the Mamba Mentality concept,” Bernstein says. “This obsession to his craft, I did all of that, too, in my craft. So we are both obsessed and I guess we recognize that in each other without even having to say it.”
That obsession is why Bernstein is a legend of photography, and when he says he didn’t see a great moment take place with his own eyes, you know it’s because he was busy taking a photo that no one will ever forget.