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The Man Behind the Jumpman: Chuck Kuhn Interview

Date: February 03 2018

By: Matt Williams

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In recent years, classic sports posters from the 1980s have taken on new lives, as a massive surge in demand has brought them back into the cultural conversation. The same five-dollar posters that were once plastered on bedroom walls have been displayed in prominent museums and art galleries – even fetching hundreds of thousands of dollars from collectors at art auctions. The most sought-after posters from this era portrayed childhood heroes dominating alternate universes and playing up outrageous superhero personas. Nike’s creative director, Peter Moore, was responsible for creating the genre back in the early-80s with the assistance of Seattle-based photographer Chuck Kuhn.

Interview: Nick Santora
Photos: Chuck Kuhn ©Nike

Darrell Griffith (Left) and George Gervin (Right)

Darrell Griffith (Left) and George Gervin (Right)

Instead of paying large sums of money to the professional sports leagues for rights and clearances of in-game photos of Nike athletes in action, Moore got creative with an assortment of cheesy plastic props and ill-fitting costumes, creating a series of larger-than-life alter-egos named Silk, Iceman, Chocolate Thunder and Dr. Dunkenstein, that captured the imagination of children everywhere.

By 1985, these posters grew beyond their original purpose as point-of-sale material at local sporting goods shops. They were even appropriated by world-renowned artist Jeff Koons as part of his Equilibrium exhibition the same year – functioning as conduits for discussion about class, race and social mobility in 80s America.

The success of Moore’s ‘alter-ego’ formula spawned Lil’ Penny, Bo Knows and the Roswell Rayguns – as well as the most powerful sports superhero in the entire galaxy, Michael ‘Air’ Jordan. For Nike’s first Air Jordan campaign, Moore called on Chuck Kuhn, a photographer he had worked with previously.

They spent two fast-paced days in Chicago with a young Jordan. On the second evening, at a playground framed by the Chicago skyline, he snapped a shot that was destined to become a global icon. You probably know it today as the ‘Jumpman’, arguably the most iconic image ever taken of MJ. We tracked Chuck Kuhn down to get his first-hand account of what it felt like to make sporting history through the lens of his camera.

The original 'Jumpman' image from 1985

The original 'Jumpman' image from 1985

Jordan Jumpman

‘I wasn’t even dunking in that shot. People think that I was. I just stood on the floor, jumped up and spread my legs and they took the picture. I wasn’t even running. Everyone thought I did that by running and taking off. Actually, it was a ballet move where I jumped up and spread my legs. And I was holding the ball in my left hand.’

– ‘Jordan on Jordan’ interview with Hoop Magazine (1997)

The 'Original Six'

The 'Original Six'

When did you start shooting Nike posters?
I started doing photographs for Nike through an agency in Seattle called John Brown Associates. I shot basketball, football, baseball and a little bit of tennis. I worked with Nike for around 15 years. At the time, I liked sports, but I wasn’t a total sports addict. Initially the posters were shot for in-store use, but then the demand was so high that Nike eventually began selling them. They sell on eBay now for a good amount of money – it’s really considered an art form.

I think the first poster I shot was Goin’ Home with Paul Westphal. We were in LA at an urban basketball court. This was in the late 1970s, before digital photography. I took all these Polaroids to adjust the lighting and see what the shots were. These kids were there watching me take photographs, so I’d give them the Polaroids. They were real ‘Wow!’ moments for them. They all asked ‘Mr. Westphal’ to autograph them, which was pretty charming.

Moses Malone (Left) and Jeff Ruland (Right)

Moses Malone (Left) and Jeff Ruland (Right)

How were these posters conceptualised?
Peter Moore was Nike’s creative director and he came up with all the ideas, then we would meet and talk back and forth to see how we would implement them. I also worked with Don Dumas. Most of the sets were built by the Dumas brothers, Don and Doug.

For Iceman, we had to haul the ice into the shoot and it was melting quickly. I think we shot Moses Malone parting the seas in Seattle with the Dumas brothers. I believe I shot Moses three times. You have to remember, these athletes were young and it seemed like Moses was always growing. No matter what outfit we made for him, it was never big enough.

We shot the Air Force 1 poster at the Long Beach Airport and I remember the costume people having to adjust and pin his flight suit because it barely fit him. The guys in that poster are legendary because they were the start of the sneaker explosion and the rise of Nike Basketball.

What do you remember about shooting Michael Jordan in 1985?
One thing I remember about Jordan during the few times I shot him, is that more than any other athlete, he definitely loved the game. It was unbelievable how much he loved playing basketball! I usually shot the basketball players somewhere with a hoop, either a playground or a gym. The Nike account people would play pick-up games before the shoots and Jordan would always play with them for the heck of it.

When the other players would shoot, they’d get the ball through the hoop once every few times. Jordan would get it in every single time. All of a sudden, when it was for real, something turned on and he was almost superhuman. All the other stuff, the fame and the fortune, it was all very nice, but I could just tell he loved the game more than anyone else I ever shot. That was just the beginning of him going to the next level.

I shot Jordan for the Jumpman poster over two days in Chicago. The first day, we shot him at the playground with the shoes around his neck and the Air Jordan clothes. That was at a Catholic grade school that had a fence around the basketball court. More and more people heard about it and kept coming and lining up against the fence. We had a couple of hundred or so people watching. I kept throwing Polaroids over the fence and then Jordan threw his clothes over – the kids went nuts!

On the second day, we shot him at a park in Chicago, on this little peninsula observatory place. We set up the basket with Chicago in the background and lit it in such a way that when the sun would go down, we would get our shot. It was just one in a series of posters we were doing back then and no one knew where it would go at the time, but it really stepped the whole thing up. It’s amazing even now, how many people I talk to, who had that Jordan poster on their wall as a kid. In 1988, they started using that photo as the logo for all the Air Jordan shoes and clothes.

Darryl Dawkins (Left) and Michael Ray Richardson (Right)

Darryl Dawkins (Left) and Michael Ray Richardson (Right)

Did you have any idea these posters would become so iconic, or be considered works of art three decades later?
Everyone was really young and no one really knew where this was going to go. At the time, to me at least, the athletes were just people – not legends like they are now. They were just entering the league and trying really hard. I never knew where any of these athletes would end up in their careers.

When I shot them, I just did what I was trained to do. I never thought anything was so special or my ticket to ride or anything. I never saw that at all. It was more innocent back then. But I think a certain amount of innocence in life is good because it makes you a lot more open to things.

Art imitates life: Koons x Kuhn

The images produced by Chuck Kuhn didn’t just capture the imaginations of young basketball fans across the world. In 1985, contemporary artist Jeff Koons opened his first major exhibition, titled Equilibrium, in New York. Following in the Duchampian tradition of ‘readymade sculpture’ and with a keen interest in Jean Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra, Koons blurred the line between art and object.

The exhibition consisted of a series of basketballs suspended in a saline solution housed in a display case, paradoxical bronze castings of flotation devices and perhaps most controversially, a series of Kuhn’s Nike posters including Boardroom, Dr. Dunkenstein, Moses and The Dynasty on 34th Street. Recognising the powerful cultural resonance of Kuhn’s imagery, Koons acquired the rights from Nike and presented them – totally unaltered – in a simple frame. Simply by presenting them in a white-cube gallery – as opposed to in a teenager’s bedroom – Koons conferred the status of objet d’art to the series.

For the artist, the images represented a new means of social mobility for urban youth that negated issues of class and race. To go from struggling inner-city neighbourhoods to household fame by virtue of athletic prowess was the embodiment of the American dream. Still, Koons realised the potential falsehoods perpetuated by these fantastical scenes as well, likening them to ‘sirens calling sailors to shipwreck,’ in a 2003 interview with Art Forum.

While Koons consistently insists that his work ‘communicates little save for their own existence,’ he continues to have relevance in the art world. Recently, two Koons posters from the 1985 series sold for $146,500 and $185,000 at the largest global art auction houses. And you thought the sneaker resell game was bad!

Originally published in Sneaker Freaker Issue 37. Get your copy here!

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