Written By: Bill Syken
Co Rentmeester, the man behind so many renowned photographs, began shooting for LIFE as a side job.
Rentmeester was born in Amsterdam, and as a rower he represented the Dutch in double scull at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. He then came to America and eventually enrolled as a student at the ArtCenter School of Design in Los Angeles. While taking classes he connected with the Time Inc. bureau there, accepting whatever assignments they had, because at $125 a pop, the photography gigs paid better than his previous side job, pumping gas for a dollar an hour.
He had been shooting mostly for Time magazine, usually basic portraits, but also some for LIFE when he got the call to help out with a big breaking news story: the Watts riots of 1965, which stemmed from a drunken driving arrest that grew violent and lasted for five days. Rentmeester rushed to the scene.
“As I drove on Imperial Avenue, the whole thing was breaking right in front of me,” he recalled recently. “Stores were going up in flames, looting was going on.” He would jump out of his car to shoot a few frames and then duck back in and drive away before the crowd could zero in on him. “That’s how I worked for 48 hours,” he says.
His Watts photos landed on the cover of LIFE, and he began shooting more for the magazine. Then LIFE came to him with a proposition: going to Vietnam for three months to document the war. Rentmeester said yes, and within 48 hours of arrival in Vietnam, he went from getting set up with credentials and a uniform to being thrown into battle. Suddenly he was in foxholes with soldiers, machine guns were firing, and he could smell the dead bodies around him. “I will never forget the shock of going from the reality of life on the outside to suddenly being in the middle of death,” he says.
But after his three months were up, he came back for more. In 1967 he took a photo which was named Photo of the Year by the World Press Organization. He was working on a story about how American tanks were having a hard time navigating the marshy Vietnamese landscape, and during one bogdown he went inside a tank with a gunner and snapped a picture that captured life inside: a glimmer of light coming through the tank’s optical aiming device and illuminating the eye of a gunner covered in sweat and grease. “To get down to the bottom of the tank, with no room to crawl around and no light, it was really very tricky,” Rentmeester says. The soldier in the photo, PFC Kerry Nelson, would in subsequent battles go on to win a silver star for a display of bravery that included continuing to fight after sustaining a wound in which he lost his sight. Years later Rentmeester spoke to Nelson’s wife, who said that he never knew about the acclaim the photo of him had achieved.
In May 1968 Rentmeester sustained his own Vietnam battle wound. He was near the airport in Saigon when he was caught in a firefight. He jumped in a three-foot-deep gully to protect himself but a bullet hit him in his left hand and shattered the lens of his camera.
Rentmeester, who is ambidextrous, returned to the United States for hand surgery. After that he took his camera out into less violent terrains, including several assignments photographing wildlife. One such assignment led to one of the more beloved LIFE covers.
He went to Japan to photograph a study being done of snow monkeys on Mt. Shiga, of interest not just for their rarity and appearance but for their intensely structured societies. The snow monkeys’ rituals included bathing together in the hot springs. “I just spend four and five days waiting for the snow monkeys to come out of mountains,” he says, and his patience was rewarded as the monkeys eased themselves into the hot springs, creating a memorable cover shot.
The 1972 Olympics led to more memorable photos—some of athletes, and another of a hideous tragedy. In the leadup to the ’72 games he captured swimmer Mark Spitz in the water with what he called a “dragging shutter” which made it seem as if the water was in motion while Spitz’s head was in perfect focus. The innovative shot was named the World Press sports photo of the year.
Then at the Olympics in Munich, Rentmeester was in his rental car, driving to the athlete’s village when he heard a radio report—In German, which the Dutch native understood well enough—that Israeli athletes had been taken hostage. After being turned away from the village itself, Rentmeester found a spot of a hillside in which he had a narrow view of the Israeli compound 300 meters away. From that vantage point he snapped photos that showed members of the Black September group that was staging the assault “I set up there with a long lens all by myself for about a half hour with a tripod trying to pick out little things,” he recalls. “Then twenty other photographers were in the same spot. You couldn’t go anywhere else.”
During the run-up to another Olympics, Rentmeester shot what is arguably the most seen photo of his career—and arguably is the all-too-correct word here, because Rentmeester has gone to the Supreme Court over the photo, which inspired the “jumpman” logo for Nike’s Michael Jordan clothing brand.
The year was 1984, and Rentmeester went to Chapel Hill, N.C., to photograph basketball star Michael Jordan. He set up on a hillside that would give him a clean skyline, and while he was waiting for Jordan to appear, Rentmeester’s team mowed the hillside and bought a portable basketball hoop from a toy store that they set up on the hill. When Jordan arrived on the set, Rentmeester asked Jordan to jump straight up while holding a basketball aloft. And instead doing a regular basketball jump, Rentmeester asked Jordan to splay his legs in the manner of a ballet dancer. With the way the hoop had been positioned, it appeared as if Jordan was sailing in for a gravity-defying dunk. “It worked beautifully,” Rentmeester says.
The image ran across two pages in LIFE. But then six months later Rentmeester was in a meeting in Chicago with a corporate client and saw an image of Jordan doing the same jump on a Nike billboard, except that this time Jordan, who played for the Bulls, appeared to be sailing across a Chicago skyline. Nike then began to use a silhouette of the pose as the “jumpman” logo.
Rentmeester, who was a freelancer at that point, eventually sued Nike for appropriating his image—they had paid his $150 for a research copy, but they did not have permission for the public usage, he says. Nike argued that the logo was made from a version of the picture they staged themselves. You can read about the years-long legal battle here, but the end result is that the judges sided with Nike, despite the undeniable similarities with the pose that Rentmeester conceived. Rentmeester says, “To this day, I feel I was entitled to have my case heard in front of a jury.”
This collection of Rentmeester’s work shows the broad scope of the subject matters he tackled, giving a feel of what it was like to be a LIFE photographer—shooting the Amazin’ 1969 Mets baseball team one day, actor Donald Sutherland and his family, including young Kiefer the next, maybe popping in on the wedding of the president’s daughter. Look here, and there’s only one verdict to be reached, which is this this is an amazing body of work.