By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski
A snapshot into former NFL star Tony Mandarich’s life as a photographer
In some circles, Tony Mandarich is considered the biggest draft bust in NFL history. To those who have known him since his NFL career, and hence most of his life, he is a renowned photographer.
The former Michigan State University football star remembers the day that changed his life. The 6-foot-6 offensive tackle was preparing to be photographed at Venice Beach for a 1989 Sports Illustrated cover. The photographer was using Polaroids for test shots.
“He kept looking at the Polaroids and asking his assistants to move the diffuser this way or add more power to the strobe that way,” Mandarich says. “It was Greek to me. I didn’t understand what he was doing. So, when he dialed it all in after about three or four Polaroids, he asked me if I wanted to see what it looked like.
“It was bright out during the photo shoot, but because of the diffusers, because of the strobe, because of the angle he was shooting, all that stuff, all those variables, made it look dramatic.”
Mandarich was “blown away” and since then he has been hooked on photography.
Unfortunately, photography hasn’t always been the only thing he’s been hooked on. The last time he was on a Sports Illustrated cover (September 28, 1992), he was labeled “The NFL’s incredible bust.” But his move from football arenas to photography studios has been one of the best he’s ever made.
In the mid-1980s, Mandarich was twice named All American and Big Ten Lineman of the Year. In 1987, the Spartans won the Big Ten Championship and the Rose Bowl.
Mandarich was the first round pick of the Green Bay Packers in the 1989 NFL draft, the second pick overall behind quarterback Troy Aikman. At the time, he was the highest-paid offensive lineman in league history. His professional football career, which also included a stint with the Indianapolis Colts (1996-1998), lasted less than a decade due to drug and alcohol addiction. He retired in 1998 because of a shoulder injury.
Fourteen years ago, he quit his job with his family’s golf course in Canada and relocated here to shoot among the saguaros and mountains. Mandarich took a 10-day cross-country trip three years ago, so he could study the landscape and stop at places he wished to see.
“I came across this one barn in Amarillo, Texas,” Mandarich says. “It was foggy and rainy. I pulled off the road and took pictures of it. The fog had this dimension of mystery. It’s a cool old building, but it wasn’t dilapidated. The grass is cool. There were telephone poles going into the distance and they get smaller and smaller and the fog sets in on them.”
He liked the photo, but he re-edited it to add motion to the images, something, he says, is going to be the next big trend. “I want to shoot stuff that disturbs people in a good way or bad way because they’re going to feel that way depending on their life experiences,” Mandarich says.
“I’ve had super highs and super lows. Looking back, I’m glad I can incorporate all that now into my work. When periods are tough, you can see my work gets a little darker, almost sinister. When things are going well, it’s more normal and it’s interesting.”
Mandarich color grades his photos, a process in which colors are enhanced to give the pictures a “cinematic” look. “I like to color grade my stuff a little bit to give it tone and feel, depending on who the person is, what they’re about,” he says.
“I also ask clients how they want to represent themselves. If they’re a contract worker for the government going overseas, they would want an intimidating, strong look. If they’re a fitness trainer or if they’re the new owner of the small bookstore, they would want a very approachable or trustworthy look. Those are two different dynamics.
“I usually get that information long before the shoot. The sooner I get the information, the better the picture will be.”
He thrives on building rapport and trust with his clients. “The ones who totally trust me will get the best pictures,” he says. “I don’t want to represent a person or a company in an unflattering way because that represents me, too.”
Mandarich isn’t too arrogant to think he doesn’t need practice. He does a “self-assignment” every week to hone his skills. Mandarich is into helping others as well.
“There are photographers who will text me or email me and say, ‘Hey, I’d love to assist or shadow you, or just sit behind the scenes just to see how you do it.’ I have absolutely no problem with that.”
The self-assignments were inspired by Buckeye photographer Joel Grimes. “When I teach, I saw talent is way overrated,” Grimes says. “I often use myself as an example. I’m not the most talented guy on the block, but I outwork all the people around me.
“I say give yourself a different assignment every week. That way, you have 50-plus photo shoots behind you. The top of the top photographers of the world all do about 50 self-assignments a year. With Tony, I’ve seen his work explode in the last couple years. I chuckle about it because not too many people I talk to get it. They’re still on the couch eating potato chips. I say get out and create. Tony is a testament to that philosophy. To be a friend or a part of his life is a great honor. I relish in seeing other people succeed.”
Valley pop star Miss Krystle met Mandarich on a movie set years ago, and the two forged a professional relationship. He shot the photos for her press kits and recordings. “He has a really big heart,” she says. “I feel the size of his heart fits his personality. He’s quick. He has a good eye and he’s a creative person.”
Mandarich is just doing his job. “I suggest picking what you love and getting good at it,” he says modestly. “That’s what I did.”