Wax Heaven Interview – Paul Gierhart

Just a month ago Wax Heaven had the privilege to exchange a few e-mails with sports photographer Jerry Hale. Me being an amateur photographer who would love nothing more than to be on the baseball field taking photographs for baseball card companies, I learned more than you can imagine from Jerry before, during, and even after the interview took place. I have once again been blessed to have the opportunity to communicate with another successful sports photographer who has had his work featured in products like Just Minors, TriStar, and even Donruss! Below is just a small sample of his recent “successes”, as he puts it. In case you are wondering, TriStar had to give permission to Wax Heaven before we could use these images.

So without further ado, I will stop stroking my ego about TriStar knowing what Wax Heaven is…let’s get straight into this awesome interview. If you love baseball, photography, and baseball cards, you would be doing yourself a dishonor in not reading this interview!

W.H: My first question is the same one I posed to Jerry last month but I’d like another sports photographer’s perspective. How hard is it to break into the industry and make a decent living?

P.G.: Let deal with “break into the industry”, first and “making a decent living”, second.

“break into the industry” – The particular ballpark where I attended games and photographing/collecting autographs (as a collector) did not have a team photographer (Clinton LumberKings). I got to know all the front office staff really well and started to do player interviews as well as photographs to be posted on their website (this was 2004). Shortly thereafter I had my first successes with images of John Danks (now LHP for the Chicago White Sox) and Thomas Diamond (recovering from Tommy Johns surgery) with Just Minors. The LumberKings front office knew I was taking a lot of photos, so they next asked about sharing my images for their printed items. I really like being able to photograph the players up close for the interviews, but as soon as the umpire walked onto the field, it was time for me to return to the stands. One of my images of Thomas Diamond made the front cover of the game day program the following year (2005). Shortly thereafter, early in the 2005 season, I asked MiLB.com if they needed any photographers in the Midwest League and I didn’t hear anything back until January 2006. They said they could use me in the Midwest League, but all they could do for payment was give me a Media Pass to all the Minor League ballparks. I would upload photos after every game, receive credit for images they use and retain the rights to the images for publications (exa. cards, magazine, programs, etc…). MiLB.com has been very good to me for the past two seasons and the relationship has been a mutual benefit to both parties. As long as I follow each stadium/teams rules for photographer (like no autographs) and make contact prior to attending any game with the media person with each team; I keep in good standing with MiLB.com. I’m looking forward to starting my third season with them.

“making a decent living”: My wife works for an account firm and does our taxes. She makes me keep track of all my expenses and payment from publications/card companies. As a result of all the ins and outs, I was lucky to do a little better then breaking even this past season. Keep in mind, I had to do other photography work (like wedding, senior pictures, family unions, etc…) to show some kind of profit. So, making a decent living…no; real expensive hobby…yes! Hence, I also work a full-time job managing a manufacturing division locally, so I have insurance, etc… Sports photography is truly a labor of love from my perspective.

W.H.: Being on the field and in games for such long periods of time, have you ever suffered an injury because of it? You know the old saying, play with fire and eventually you will get burned?

PG: I have really prided myself in keeping safe during BP and games since 2004. The last game of the year (2007) I photographed Game 5 of the MWL Championship. I was photographing the starting pitcher for the home team, just right and 10 to 15 yards back from home plate. On my second series of shots of the pitcher going through his motion and releasing the ball, the catcher muffed a 70-80 mph curveball, which bounced one time and caught me on my left shin. It stung for a little bit and I went on photographing the balance of the game without giving it anymore thought. Later the following week, I developed a bump where the ball struck me in the shin and it got a little black and blue. I didn’t think too much of it, until I removed my sock to find some major black/blue around the heal of my foot. Finally, realizing the position of the impact and the fact that blood will drain downwards, I found maybe I was hit a little harder then what I first imagined. The blood around the inside of the skin of my heal disappeared a week later. You really have to be careful on the field, always!

W.H.: What are some of the biggest disappointments you have faced being a sports photographer?

P.G.: I don’t feel I have had many disappoints being a sports photographer. I am developing this hobby into a retirement gig and I have time to acquire more equipment, and more contacts to turn this into a full-time business. Probably my biggest issue is not having more time to run on moments notice to shoot games. I have missed a few prospects and pros doing rehab in the MWL, because of time and timing. But on the flip side, you would be surprised the paths you cross, just by fate. In 2006, an unannounced roving instructor by the name of Paul Molitor showed up at a ballpark where I was shooting. This year I was doing some head and shoulder photographs of Marcus Lemon and told him when his dad (Chet) was in town, I could photograph them together. Marcus said what about today? I found I was standing right next to his father and did not know it. To me, sports photography is a great adventure I’m on and I just take it as it comes.

W.H.: You mentioned being a collector as a child, who was your favorite player/team and what was your all-time favorite set, year wise?

P.G.: Living so close to Chicago, I would have to say I loved listening to White Sox games on the radio and watching Cub games on T.V. My grandfather and uncle (on my Mom’s side) were huge Cub fans and I remember many Sundays sitting on their couch watching the Cubs. Also, my grandfather helped me became well versed in cursing, since the Cubs without fail, could erase any lead they had, away in the 9th inning. Those were great times! My old-time Cub/White Sox favorites were Ron Santo and Richie Allen. My all-time favorite sets were the 1983 Topps/Donruss/Fleer issues (with the 1983 Topps/Donruss/Fleer Traded sets right behind them). The reason being it was the year I married my wife and it was the debut year for Ryne Sandberg as a Cubbie. I still have a collection of Sandberg items and have enjoyed photographing Ryno as the skipper for the Peoria Chiefs in the Midwest League.

W.H.: I imagine you have met a lot of promising ball players and future legends. What is the best athlete you have ever run into in your profession? Also, what athlete have you met that you were star struck by, if any?

P.G.: The best athlete I have ever run into was Albert Pujols, when he was the third baseman for the Peoria Chiefs in 2000. He was man among boys on the ball field. I remember having him sign a couple things for me and telling my middle son, that this guy was the real deal. Probably a close second was Joe Mauer (Quad Cities River Bandits 2001), Josh Beckett (Kane County Cougars 2000) & Jay Bruce (Dayton Dragons 2006). I don’t know that I was ever star stuck by any player. I realized a long time ago these guys are people just like everyone else…they just happen to make a living playing baseball. Probably the closest I have ever gotten to being nervous around a player was the first time I photographed Luke Hochevar. I knew I wasn’t going to get much time with him, and I wanted every photo I took to be my very best. As a result, Tristar used one of my very first images of Hochevar in their advertising for the 2006 Prospects Plus and I have since had about a half dozen Hochevar images used by them for cards.

W.H.: Is there competition/rivalry between sports photographers?

P.G.: I would say there is a lot of competition between sports photographers, because there are only so many images that are going to be accepted by any one card company and really the pay is not that much for any one image. So, quality and quantity is sometimes the name of the game. Other times it’s just getting around to as many ball games as possible and willingness to photograph as many players as possible. And sometimes it’s just plain old fashion luck. Also, I believe photographers get weeded out because of their lack of being professional. “Please” and Thank You” get you a lot further in this business, than just assume it going to be handed to you because you are a credentialed photographer. I’m sure there are rivalries among photographers, but I have turned photo editors onto other photographers who have an image, I don’t have. And many other photographers have done the same for me. Being professional and earning the respect of other photographers/editors is more important to me than competition and rivalries. I have learned a lot from seeing the work of other photographers and welcome their ideas in composing a better photo…the competition can only make us all better.

W.H.: What advice would you give to a young man or woman who has only one goal in life, to be a sports photographer?

P.A.: I would suggest going to the best college you can afford and majoring in photography and minor in graphic arts. To know both sides of the business, that being photography and printing, will give you the best overall knowledge you need to understand the demands that need to be met in sports photography. I have been real lucky to learn about photography the ol’ fashion way…from the school of hard knocks and at work I have gained a better understanding about graphic arts/printing by working with the printer of our product brochures.

The following questions were submitted by readers of Wax Heaven;

Palm Beach Gardens, Fl

How many Minor League stadiums have you been to and in your opinion who has the nicest ballpark in the minors.

Erick, in the Midwest League, I mainly go to stadiums in the Western Division. Those being Alliant Energy Field (home of the Clinton LumberKings), Elfstrom Stadium (home of the Kane County Cougars), Modern Woodman Park (home of the Quad Cities River Bandits), Pohlman Field (home of the Beloit Snappers), O’Brien Field (home of the Peoria Chiefs) and Community Field (home of the Burlington Bees). I really see nothing but pluses with each stadium. From my standpoint, being able to park close, nice stadium layouts, area(s) for photographers to shoot from and lighting, are all important to me. I really am not a good one to judge stadiums.

Mike from Bad Wax

I have several questions:

1. Why is it so tough to get players in their new uniforms since every player gets a press conference.

Player movement from one team to another and uniforms designs changing from year to year probably has a lot to do with how current player images can be. Editors are selecting photos way before the cards are issued and many things play a role in what the finally image looks like when you open that pack of cards. Some companies use the air brush and other editing processes to take a player who was originally photographed in a minor leagues uniform and change it into their major league uniform.

2. What percentage of photos used for players are from previous years?

I would say a lot more than anyone would like to admit.

3. Why do some players only have one photo, which is used by both Topps and Upper Deck?

I can only assume special contracts developed by a players agent, might have something to do with this or there is only a few images to select from.

4. Who is the friendliest subject you have ever had?

The friendliest subject I have ever photographed was White Sox LHP John Danks (when he was with the Clinton LumberKings).

5. Who was the worst subject you ever had?

Given I shoot for MiLB.com, many of the players I photograph in the minors do not give me too rough of a time. There is some goofing off sometimes and some guys are too serious, but it’s my job to catch them in the best light possible and make them look good.

Tatiana from For The Love of Baseball

How do you feel about photography taking a backseat to game-used cards and autographs?

How important is an SLR camera to your profession? Does anyone use a point and shoot?

I really have not been affected by game-used and autographed cards pushing me into the backseat…in fact most times, my player images are used on those cards.

I guess it’s all a matter of what you get use to. Most time photos are cropped to some degree, so getting an image of exactly what you shot may not be important and other time you got to be dead on…depends on the circumstance involved. I use a Kodak camera, that I just can’t seem to give up, because of the color chip in it and the reliability of flash portrait shots it takes. So, point and shoot may have some valid usage in sport photos, just like my old Kodak. Bottom line, you have to use what works and results in acceptable images for your taste and/or an editor.

JRJ from The Sports Locker

What’s is your favorite photo that was never used? And why wasn’t it used?

Attached are couple of my images that have not been used for cards yet, but a couple card companies have them…still a chance! The Whittleman images was used by the Texas Rangers for their Game Day Program in a article. No takers on the Cozart image, yet.

A special thanks goes out to Mr. Gierhart for his candid responses, efforts in scanning cards from his own collection, and most of all for letting Wax Heaven publish two photographs that might someday become baseball cards. It was an honor to do this interview! Stay tuned for the next one coming soon.

6 thoughts on “Wax Heaven Interview – Paul Gierhart

  1. This was definately a FUN read! I liked the description of “breaking in” to the bigs. Sometimes we laymen forget that there isn’t always a watershed moment, that it’s just a natural progression.

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