OZZIE SWEET was right at the heart of the American sports scene for many years. It's just that most people never realized it.
He was never a marquee athlete, but was the one who introduced them to the public during the 1940s, '50s, and '60s through his photographs. Many of the photos were taken from such close range that one could count the whiskers. His pictures regularly graced the cover and inside pages of Sport magazine.
Now Ozzie is back, thanks in part to society's insatiable appetite for nostalgia. The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., is displaying his works in an exhibit of oversize prints. In putting together a turn-back-the-clock feature a few years ago, Sports Illustrated tapped into his ample portfolio. And now a collection of some of his favorite images is in a new book, ``Legends of the Field: The Classic Sports Photography of Ozzie Sweet'' (Viking Studio Books, 270 pp., $40).
In the rolling countryside of southern New Hampshire, Sweet and his wife, Diane, an importer, own a sprawling farmhouse that dates to 1775 and contains a rustic studio in an adjoining carriage house, where he stables a 1951 Buick station wagon.
Sweet spends part of his retirement taking pictures of pets and classic cars for calendars. He loves winters in New England, but each spring he's off to Florida, where many of his most memorable sports photos were taken at baseball training camps.
It was there that he developed his trademark techniques of photographic illustration. ``I couldn't shoot all closeup portraits,'' he says. ``I had to give the feeling of action but still get a really sharp picture. So I developed what I call simulated action.'' This is staged action or photographic illustration, in which the subjects are posed.
``There was no way to get sharp detail and see the subject and have everything under control if I didn't do that,'' Sweet explains.
Fishing line became a favorite tool for suspending objects. Once he rigged up a contraption to make it appear that Yogi Berra had just flipped off his catcher's mask in pursuit of a popup. Another time, he framed slugger Roger Maris with what looked like floating bats. ``The editors wanted something quite different,'' Sweet says. ``In the picture, Roger is laughing because it was so ridiculous.''
A gimmick he hit upon in photographing a sliding Jackie Robinson was to use sifted ashes to simulate a cloud of dust. They ``flew around better and were lighter'' than sand, and worked wonderfully to hide the stool that Robinson was sitting on.
Even some head shots implied that the athletes had just seen action. Their perspiration was often the product of water droplets and oil applied by Sweet. Some of the sweat, however, was probably real under the hot studio lights.
As a magazine-cover specialist, Sweet used a carload of equipment to set up his outdoor studios - including a large-format camera, tripods, and, in his early Sport days, flashbulbs that had to be replaced after each shot.
The fact that ``none of the other photographers used all this heavy equipment'' got the ballplayers' attention, he says.
A player who went above and beyond the call of duty was shortstop Luis Aparicio. ``No matter what I asked for, he would hit the right positions with his body,'' Sweet says, recollecting their photo session. ``I shot for a half hour because he was such a great subject. He enjoyed it so much that at the end he said, `Ozzie, you sure you got enough?' You didn't get that very often.''
Athletes came to respect Sweet's professionalism when he discussed the photo sessions with them a day or two before the shoot. He established a rapport with many of his subjects. To this day, he says, he still communicates with Bob Feller, the fastball pitcher who was the subject of Sweet's first sports cover for a 1947 edition of Newsweek.
Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle contributed dustjacket tributes for Sweet's book. Mantle and several Yankee teammates once accepted Ozzie's invitation to go deep-sea fishing, an outing that bore much photographic fruit.
Although baseball was Sweet's major sports focus, football yielded two prominent shots in his published collection.
One is a simulated action shot of Cleveland fullback Jim Brown, who appears to be running with the ball. It summarizes a lot of what Sweet did. ``Brown is not moving, not one iota,'' the mustachioed photographer says. ``He has one foot on a bench. He's shot straight up, but I tilted the camera to give a feeling of action.'' The angle and the sky backdrop were important considerations, allowing for magazine cover type.
The other football picture is a close-up of Green Bay halfback Paul Hornung taken from the side, sans face mask. Sweet purposefully removed the face guard to get a better view of what he calls ``the most handsome profile of any athlete.''
Profiles are something Sweet scrutinized as a sculpture and photography student in Los Angeles in the late 1930s. His own jaw line helped him earn Hollywood acting roles. But his real calling was as a photographer, and before long he was landing major magazine assignments and shooting everybody from Albert Einstein and Yogi Berra to Ingrid Bergman and Bob Hope.
One of his most famous clients was Grace Kelly, who as an aspiring young model asked Sweet to help her put together a photographic portfolio. For many years, he sent her 10 percent of the proceeds made from the photos.
Sweet's shots also landed in one of photography's most coveted pieces of real estate - the Kodak Colorama in New York's Grand Central Station - more than two dozen times.
Today, with powerful lenses, sports telecasts have moved within Ozzie Sweet range of athletes. ``They come right in, in the dugout, everywhere,'' he says. Four decades ago he pretty much cornered the market on supersharp, in-your-face photography. ``In my day, about the only time you'd see athletes up close was when I would shoot them.''