For a certain generation, “being like Mike” not only meant wagging your tongue as you attempted to float from the free-throw line on the court behind your house, but also owning Jordan ephemera like sneakers and memorabilia, which gave lucky owners the slightest feel of interconnectedness between His Airness and oneself.
Specifically, millions of kids in the early ’90s went to sleep every night with Michael Jordan imagery plastered to the wall; none perhaps more famous than the 72×23 “Wings” poster shot by photographer Gary Nolton, whose stark, black and white image with the William Blake quote, “No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings,” made the descent into dreamland that much easier.
Prior to this poster, NBA fandom was cemented by cartoony and decidedly kid-like imagery like Karl Malone literally dressed like a mailman, Xavier McDaniel tethered to a glowing-eyed dog, and Dee Brown posing with a child’s birthday party as a backdrop.
Needless to say, advertising executives were selling players. Nike was trying to sell a hero.
As the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery noted, “The Wings poster documents a shift in athletes’ earning potential from their performance to their endorsement deals; it also marks a historic moment when African American sports figures could serve as role models to all Americans.”
Gary Nolton wasn’t a surprise choice as the man behind-the-lens. Having already established a rapport with both Jordan and Nike, he knew what he needed to get and nailed it.
What brought you to photography? Was it always a calling? How did you transition from amateur shutterbug to professional?
While I never heard a melodious [and] mysterious voice calling me, I suppose it was my destiny. I had artistic talent and aspirations ever since being a little kid. Painting, drawing and building things. But once I got a camera in my hands, I could do things with it [that I couldn’t] on the other mediums. So, I pretty much knew at 13-14 years old that all I wanted to do was make still and motion picture images.
When and where was this photo shot?
The photo was taken in my Portland studio and I honestly do not have a record of the exact date it was, I believe in Summer 1989.
What had been your primary editorial focus up until that point? Had you already worked with Nike, and if so, in what capacity?
At that time I had already been a freelance commercial photographer for seven years, and had shot many ad campaigns, editorial images, catalogs, and other imagery for dozens of ad agencies and clients around the U.S, including Nike.
You mentioned working in an editorial capacity for seven years prior to this shoot. What other Nike campaigns were you involved with?
Dozens of catalogs, posters, sales meeting films and some print ads.
Other iconic images of Jordan from that era relied on capturing his athletic prowess: zooming from the free-throw line, etc. Was it a risk presenting him in a more “artistic” manner?
I remember thinking when I saw the layout from the Nike staff Designer, Ron Dumas, that it was a bold and refreshing departure. Many of the poster images at that time were aimed at kids, and thus rather ‘cartoon’ like. This to me seemed like another display of Nike’s courage to break the rules.
This was pre-championship Michael Jordan. Did he still have this “aura” about him despite having not yet climbed to the proverbial championship mountaintop?
I’d say yes, he had a certain confidence but also was very accessible, easy to work with and cooperative. I had already shot him once before, so that helped, and would work with him again several times going forward. The aura and more came later.
Jordan is known as one of the fiercest competitors around. Did you get a sense that he demanded perfection not only from himself, but everyone involved in the campaign?
Not on that shoot. I did not sense that as much as a desire to please and help me get the image the way I wanted it.
Was that now iconic “wingspan” pose the only setup? Were there other shots that you captured that hit the cutting room floor?
That pose was the sole intention of the shoot, but I did shoot some color versions just since we were there and had time.
Do you think the reception to the photo would have been the same had Nike decided to run with the impromptu color options?
That’s an interesting question! Maybe, but I do feel the black-and-white image has more power as it distills the viewing experience down to a study of line and form without the distraction of color.
Was the pose your idea?
No, it was following a designed layout provided by the client, Nike Design. My contribution was the style of the lighting, the way the backdrop was toned, and then of course the work of making the master print, which I still have.
What kind of gear and film was used for the shoot?
Since the image was going to be printed so large, I wanted the highest quality original negative possible. So I made six exposures on Kodak Plus-X B&W negative with my 4”x5” Sinar P View Camera. Nikon 210mm lens. The lighting was with Speedotron Electronic flash units through various diffusion banks.
Today, we think of Photoshop or Instagram when it comes to post-processing. What, if any, alterations were made between what you captured in-camera, and what was developed in the darkroom?
All the processing and print-making was done in my studio darkroom. I made several 16×20 fiber-based paper prints before settling on the one I felt worthy of submitting to the client. The only ‘post-processing’ was to have an airbrush artist remove the support that was under the basketball. Of course MJ could palm the ball, but we wanted to make it as effortless as possible for him to hold the pose and have the ball in the exact right position.
When people find out you took that photograph, how often do you get the response, “I had that poster on my wall when I was a kid!”
Yes, all the time. But it’s the most satisfying when I hear my grown kids tell their friends that “my dad made that photograph.”
You mentioned owning the master print. As we know, memorabilia collectors—especially Michael Jordan enthusiasts—are super passionate. Has anyone ever approached you about purchasing it?
No, but most likely since people haven’t thought of it.
Would you even sell it?
I don’t think so… unless MJ wanted it. Then I could name my price.
What tips would you give aspiring photographers who find themselves with opportunities to shoot portraits of big name talent like Michael Jordan?
Short answer? “Be prepared, be confident, and be yourself.”
- Featured/Main Image: Gary Nolton