04/06/12 10:00 AM ET
Ironically, Big Unit embraces photography
Johnson busy in retirement taking pictures of sports, concerts
By Zack Meisel / MLB.com
The Big Unit still hides behind his tools, focused on the task before him, only he has replaced his glove with a camera.
Photography isn't just a diversion to keep him from twiddling his thumbs now that he is two-plus years removed from retiring as a player. Johnson -- he of 10 All-Star appearances, five Cy Young Awards, 303 wins and an eventual ticket to Cooperstown -- is just as serious about his camera lens as he was about his 100-mph heater and stifling slider.
"He's fallen back in love with photography," said Mark J. Rebilas, a professional sports photographer who has worked alongside Johnson at four events. "He takes it very seriously. When he was working with me, he was asking me all sorts of technical questions."
Johnson has come a long way, and has done so quickly. Thirty years ago, he majored in photojournalism at the University of Southern California, where he played baseball for three years.
"[My passion] started in high school on a much smaller scale," Johnson said. "It grew as I went to college. I learned a lot more and had several jobs to practice and learn on the fly."
Three decades later, he has been spotted on the sidelines at NFL games, in the pit at NASCAR races and at various rock concerts across the country.
He climbed the Minor League ladder in three years before making his big league debut for the Expos in 1988. He hasn't wasted any time working his way up to shooting the premier events, either.
"I enjoy shooting everything I've had the chance to shoot," Johnson said. "Every event is different in some way, whether it's constructing the picture, subject or lighting."
The parallels between crafting a plan of attack on the mound and surveying the scene from behind a camera are striking. Johnson noted tunnel vision, keeping an open mind and patiently going through a process as three similarities between his two pastimes.
"You have to be aware of the situation at all times," said Andrew Weber, who has shot for ESPN and US Presswire. "If it's the fifth inning and someone is on first and second in a tie game, you have to think ahead if a guy is going to score, if it's a fly ball to the outfield, if it's going to be a double play, or if the guy is going to lay down a bunt. You have to think of all the different scenarios."
Although it's easy for Johnson to focus on his camera's target, it's often difficult for those around him to avoid shifting their attention to the unusually tall photographer nearby.
"I have a special 6-foot-10-inch camera made just for my height," Johnson said, laughing. "Trying not to be noticed is hard at times."
Weber, who stands 5-foot-7, prefers his own stature.
"There are some times I wish I were taller, but sometimes I'm happy being short because I'm more agile on my feet," Weber said. "I can fit through small, little cracks between people at a football game. I can run around easier than a guy who is 6-foot-10."
Johnson has accepted the fact that he stands out among his new peers. He doesn't go out of his way to welcome the spotlight, but he has softened since his playing days. As a player, he didn't keep his distaste of camera attention a secret, including the time he pushed a TV cameraman in New York.
Rebilas, based in Phoenix, Ariz., had several encounters with the hurler when he was with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
"The guy scared the hell out of me," said Rebilas, who has shot a NASCAR race, two drag races and an NFL game with Johnson. "He was just rude, ominous and you could tell he didn't like having cameras pointed at him, and he would let you know it."
Now, Johnson is the one pointing the camera at athletes and musicians.
"It's very ironic and it's pretty funny," Rebilas said. "But he gets along with all of the photographers. He's all about getting advice from people. It's not a hobby just for fun. He takes it incredibly serious."
Johnson pitched in the Major Leagues for 22 seasons, each year making the tweaks and adjustments necessary to improve. He has demonstrated a similar commitment with photography.
While he has no employer or boss, he has submitted his work to various magazines, posters, newspapers and band websites.
His body -- his left shoulder in particular -- told him he needed to retire not long after his 46th birthday in 2009. Photography doesn't take the physical toll on Johnson that his last job did.
Now, he can set his own agenda, and with his baseball career behind him, gaze into the future from behind his lens.
"I'm happy with the path I'm on," Johnson said. "There's no time schedule, just mine."