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.

This man was driven from his home during the 1965 Watts riots, which lasted five days. The photo made the cover of LIFE’s issue of August 27, 1965.

Co Rentmeester/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Firemen attempted to deal with one of the many fires set during the 1965 Watts riots, which lasted five days.

Co Rentmeester/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

PFC Kerry Nelson, his eye illuminated by light coming through his aiming sight, squinted to line up his 90-mm cannon; the photo was named 1967’s World Press photo of the year.

Co Rentmeester/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

American tanks often struggled to move through the swampy terrain in Vietnam, 1967.

Co Rentmeester/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

American B-52 dropped a payload of bombs onto Viet Cong positions during the Vietnam War, 1968.

Co Rentmeester/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Soldiers of the Second Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade saluted 98 pairs of boots arranged to commemorate each man who died in the fighting in and around Hill 875; the monthlong battle of Dak To cost 280 Americans and 1,641 North Vietnamese their lives.

Co Rentmeester/Life PIctures/Shutterstock

Soldiers of the Second Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade prepared to honor fallen comrades represented by 98 pairs of boots arranged to commemorate each man who died in the fighting in and around Hill 875; the monthlong battle of Dak To cost 280 Americans and 1,641 North Vietnamese their lives.

Co Rentmeester/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

LIFE photographer Co Rentmeester near the DMZ in Vietnam.

Life Pictures/Shutterstock

LIFE photographer Co Rentmeester, 1968.

Co Rentmeester/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

An orangutan swinging from a vine in the jungles of North Borneo, 1968.

Co Rentmeester/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

A group of Japanese macaques sat in hot spring in the Shiga mountains in Japan, 1969.

Co Rentmeester/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Snow monkeys n a tree branch in the Shiga mountains, Japan, 1969

Co Rentmeester/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

A Japanese macaque or snow monkey sat in a hot spring in the Shiga mountains during a snowfall, 1969.

Co Rentmeester/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

January 30, 1970 LIFE Magazine cover

January 30, 1970 LIFE Magazine cover

Photo by Co Rentmeester

Polar bears in Hudson Bay, Canada, 1969.

Co Rentmeester/Life Pictures/1969

Tom Seaver dominated for the Miracle Mets in 1969, going 25-7 and winning the first of his three Cy Young awards.

Co Rentmeester/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Tom Seaver, 1969.

Tom Seaver won 25 games, the most in the majors, as the leader of the Miracle Mets in 1969.

Co Rentmeester/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Fans cheered on the 1969 Mets as the team drove toward its first World Series title.

Co Rentmeester/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

O'Hare Airport, 1970.

O’Hare Airport, 1970.

Co Rentmeester The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Donald Sutherland, 1970.

Donald Sutherland, 1970.

Co Rentmeester The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Donald Sutherland and his son, Kiefer, in California, 1970.

Donald Sutherland and his son, Kiefer, in California, 1970.

Co Rentmeester The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

California, 1970.

California, 1970.

Co Rentmeester / LIFE Picture Collection via Shutterstock

Near Malibu, California, 1970.

Co Rentmeester/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

California, 1970.

California, 1970.

Co Rentmeester / LIFE Picture Collection via Shutterstock

In an enema room of the Bronx VA Hospital in New York, disabled spinal injury patients wait up to four hours to be attended by a single aide, 1970.

In the enema room of the Bronx VA hospital, spinal injury patients waited up to four hours to be treated by a single aide, 1970.

Co Rentmeester The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

President Richard Nixon escorted his daughter Tricia down the aisle at her wedding to Nixon aide Edward Cox in the Rose Garden of the White House, Washington DC, June 12, 1971.

Co Rentmeester/LIfe Pictures/Shutterstock

US swimmer Mark Spitz trained for 1972 Munich Olympics.

Co Rentmeester/Life Pictures/1970

Al Feuerbach, 1972 U.S. Olympian.

Co Rentmeester/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

US wrestler eventual gold medal winner Wayne Wells (top) overpowering W. German Adolf Seger in freestyle welterweight elimination match at the 1972 summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany.

US wrestler eventual gold medal winner Wayne Wells (top) overpowered West German Adolf Seger in freestyle welterweight elimination match at the 1972 summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany.

Co Rentmeester The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

US swimmer Mark Spitz held a big lead in the 200-meter butterfly at the 1972 Olympics; he set a world record in the event while winning one of his seven gold medals at the Games.

Co Rentmeester/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

A stocking-masked Black September terrorist looked out from balcony in the Olympic village where his group was holding nine Israeli athletes hostage after killing two others; all the Israeli athletes died in the incident, along with five of the eight hostage takers and a West German police officer.

Co Rentmeester/Life Pictures/1972

A German policeman leans against a wall outside an apartment where Israeli hostages are held, Munich, September 1972.

A German policeman leaned against a wall outside an apartment where nine Israeli hostages were held in the Olympic village in Munich, September 1972.

Co Rentmeester/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Perched on a terrace directly above the Israeli quarters, a German policeman checks his submachine gun before advancing further, Munich, September 1972.

Perched on a terrace directly above the Israeli quarters where nine hostages were being held, a German policeman checked his submachine gun before advancing further. All hostages and five of eight terrorists were killed in a rescue attempt, as well as a West German police officer, Munich, September 1972.

Co Rentmeester/Life Photo Collection/Shutterstock

In 1984 Michael Jordan jumped straight up while doing a ballet split on a hillside in Chapel Hill, N.C., with a toy basket staged cannily in front of him, in 1984; the image led to a lawsuit between its photographer, Co Rentmeester, and NIke over the company’s “jumpman” logo.

Courtesy of Co Rentmeester

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