Art Seitz Photographs the U.S. Open

In this citadel of tennis, burly Art Seitz moves toward the net, his body rotating gracefully as he raises his arms and turns to make a shot, a half smile on his lips. He is in his element: U.S. Open tennis and action photography.

Seitz wheels and pulls up a long telephoto lens, spotting Mary Pierce stretching on a distant court. Click. Click. Then he turns back to the practice session at hand.

Handsome Nicholas Lapentti of Ecuador is stroking backhands. Watching him is a brunette in white pants and turquoise halter top. “Didn’t I photograph you in the Miss World contest in 1998?” Seitz asks with a twinkle. She bursts into a smile. Click. Click.

At 57, Seitz, a former University of Florida tennis letterman, is on top of his game. For 30 years, he’s traveled the world as a freelancer, logging more than 20,000 miles per annum, shooting thousands of players on and off the court and developing a reputation as one of the sport’s finest photographers.

How does he succeed? “I’m intuitive,” he says, “I notice things in people. The quality of the light, the patterns of things.”

Charm and Camaraderie

His triptych of Russian teenage phenomenon Anna Kournikova is an example: It captures a woman whose long blond hair flounces up in the sunlight, then plunges and angles downward in counterpoint to her movement in hitting a serve, then comes to rest as she walks ramrod straight, moving away from a point.

Three shots of Carlos Moya of Spain announce a dancer. Shirtless Andre Agassi reveals a furious forehand. And John McEnroe reaches out, his arms and legs headed in four directions.

Seitz is not modest about his talent (“I was one of only two photographers invited to Fred Perry’s memorial service,” he says of the British tennis player who died in 1995), but he’s gentle about his accomplishments.

“I get a lot of pleasure from the camaraderie, the characters” he says. “I’ve got lots of pictures that wind up on somebody’s icebox door. There are very few people in tennis I haven’t given pictures to.”

So they know him, smiling in his direction or shaking his hand as they enter the grounds of the National Tennis Center, intent on practice, practice, practice.

“I approached six players and didn’t get a single flat turndown,” he says proudly. In a sport where young egos are constantly stroked, this is an achievement.

International Recognition

In two days, he has managed to shoot 56 rolls of film, delivering them to a photo lab on the grounds of the Open, where they are processed for free. The manufacturer, Fujifilm, makes its money from sales of its 35mm product and earns goodwill from professional photographers for its no-charge processing service.

Each photo goes into Seitz’s mental Rolodex. The Lapentti shots will go to Latin America. Seitz services more than a dozen tennis magazines around the world. He reels off the names: Tennis Oggi (Italy), Smash Tennis (Switzerland), Tennis (Holland), Tennis Plus (Russia).

“I had 96 photos in one issue of Tennis Match,” he reports, citing the American magazine as one of his best customers.

Waiting for Williams Sisters

It’s noon on the day before the Open officially gets under way, and we are heading for the back gate. Seitz, carrying a clear plastic bag with 56 envelopes containing strips of film negatives, boards his van and takes off for Manhattan.

Twenty minutes later, at FAO Schwartz, Seitz wades into a phalanx of photographers struggling politely for position. They are trying to shoot the picture of the moment: Venus and Serena Williams unveiling their $39.99 pair of dolls.

Small children await their chance for an autograph as the dozen photographers try to capture the sisters without revealing the weaving, sweating mass of journalists surrounding them.

Seitz moves in, drops to one knee, and is lost in the mob. “Hey, V, “ he says softly, “Venus.” No reaction from a woman he has been photographing for a decade. Venus and Serena are locked in conversation.

“Amazing concentration they have,” he says.

Then, almost magically, the group parts and begins to thin. The shots come. Seitz has his pictures and is ready to leave. “It’s a classic case of the value of just stickin’ around,” he says.

Pulling out of a side street, he drives down Fifth Avenue, searching, of all things, for an Instant Photo Lab. “There’s one,” he says, and carries several rolls from the Williams shoot in the front door directly under the “One-Hour Photo” sign.

The sight is delicious: Seitz, a photographer with awards and covers of Time and Newsweek in his portfolio, plus sessions with four presidents (Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush), walking into a mass production photo lab.

“It’s a crapshoot,” he admits, “but it can come out either way: good or bad.”

Photos for a Global Audience

After a lunch of scrambled eggs and steak, Seitz picks up his freshly processed film and heads downtown.

Near the Holland Tunnel, he parks his van and enters a cavernous building under renovation on Varick Street. Upstairs, down a long, dark hallway, sits Spencer Platt, a weekend editor with Liaison, a photo agency. Seitz pulls out his negatives and confers briefly with Platt, who is editing and transmitting the agency’s daily news photos to clients around the world.

For three hours, Seitz sits at a desk and studies and marks negatives, filling dozens of boxes with slides. Occasionally, he calls Platt over to examine his best shots. Platt is preoccupied with transmitting shots of President Clinton touring Nigeria.

Finally, shortly before 7 p.m., Seitz coaxes the editor to scan and pull a few photos of Venus and Serena Williams. They will go out to Europe, but probably too late for most newspaper deadlines on the Continent. “I should have taken the bag directly to Kennedy [Airport],” he says, frustrated that his competitors have gotten a jump.

But Seitz is not angry. He thanks Platt and walks out into the evening. Cars and trucks are moving past, their headlights glancing off the sidewalk. He heads for the hotel. Tomorrow, and every day for two weeks, there are matches to shoot.