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THE ART OF OZZIE SWEET

by Larry Canale |

Ozzie Sweet was as humble a man as you could meet—there was no air of superiority about him, no sense of self-importance. Yes, he knew he was good, and he took pride in his standing as the most prolific cover photographer in publishing history. But in the 20 years I knew Ozz, I never heard him crow about any of that.

Still, every photographer wants people to enjoy his or her work, and Ozz was no different. That was one of the reasons he set out—way back in the early 1940s—to become a “cover specialist,” as he would say. And he did it, too, ringing up some 2,000 magazine cover photographs during a 65-year career.

Ozzie won his fame largely for his baseball work, but that category accounts for maybe 10 percent of his output. To become a cover specialist, he had to be as "broad" as possible, so he approached publishers of any and every kind of magazine. You'll see the variety here: images focusing on kids and families, women and romance, cars and trucks, hunting and fishing, farming and agriculture, Americana and landscapes, and, of course, every type of popular sport.

His magazine cover photos alone gave Ozzie incredible visibility over six-plus decades. Adding to his reach: calendars, major advertisements, posters, postcards, packaging, and products featuring his photographs. 

Books, too, celebrated Ozzie’s work and brought it to the pubic. His images filled 18 award-winning children's wildlife books between 1974 and 1987, all of them written with noted author Jack Denton Scott. 1993, Viking Press put out Legends of the Field/The Classic Photography of Ozzie Sweet, with text by Steve Wulf. In 1998, Ozzie and I collaborated on Mickey Mantle: The Yankee Years to showcase his best Mantle images. (Note: Ozz photographed “The Magnificent Yankee” every year of his career after he got called up in 1951.) In 2005, another book I wrote with Ozzie, The Boys of Spring, came out. 

The one missing medium, at least on a broad and large scale, was fine art prints. Ozzie talked with me many times about how to get his favorite photographs printed on quality paper and offered to interested buyers. Over the years, he orchestrated the occasional deal with galleries and art sellers who created prints, but they typically were “one-offs” or small groups printed in limited quantities. Ozz would rather have had a broader deal to take on his archives: a “headquarters.”

Preserving Ozzie's Archive: What It Takes

Practically every time I visited Ozzie over the years, he and his wife, Diane Sweet, talked about what it would take to make this archives available to people who wanted prints. Heck, it wouldn’t take too much... I’m being sarcastic, of course. To do justice to Ozzie’s archives, we needed a printing and graphics house that:

  • Understands the significance of what he did and appreciated his impact
  • Would treat his work with care and respect
  • Has marketing punch
  • Demonstrates the ability to visualize multiple uses for Ozzie’s work
  • Is capable of high-quality print-making
  • Wouldn’t be intimidated—but, rather, energized—by the sheer volume of Ozzie’s archive, which exceeds 50,000 transparencies
  • Is technically savvy, with an ability to salvage aging transparencies (Ozzie’s earliest ones, of course, show signs of deterioration)
  • Is Internet-ready

Where to find such a business? It felt like a needle-in-a-haystack search.

I spent many years editing an antiques-related publication, so I got to know people from auction houses large and small, along with all kinds of independent art and print dealers. 

My auction house friends would say, "How about an Ozzie Sweet auction?" Well, he had a successful sale at Sotheby’s in 2000, one that moved a portion of his best sports images. But I wasn’t a fan of another auction—I personally didn't like the idea of casting his transparencies to the wind. 

My art dealer friends don't offer full-service capabilities—they can market and sell, but don't offer scanning, color-correcting, and fine printing services.

Another potential avenue I discussed with the Sweets: museums. They would mention that avenue because a few major museums had approached them over the years. At least they would keep the collection together, but who knew if they’d have the funding to scan, print, and make Ozzie’s art available?

Made to Order

After Ozzie died on Feb. 20, 2013, Diane never gave up on his dream to match up his life’s work to an appreciative audience. In August 2015, she saw an article in the Boston Globe about a printing and graphic house that bought some unpublished Janis Joplin negatives in an estate sale and brought them to life via fine-art prints made available to the collecting public. The photographs came from Joplin’s final appearance, in 1970, before her untimely death. In the audience that night: a young Diane Sweet.

Diane clipped the Globe article and filed it for a while, but eventually pulled it out of a drawer and made a cold call to the graphic house. 

The call led her to Jared Gendron, who runs JG Autographs (a seller of “autographs, fine art, and antiquities” launched in the 1990s) and—with his art director brother Trevor Gendron—House of Roulx (“purveyors of cultural wares and art specialties”).   

The brothers Gendron, it turned out, fit Ozzie’s archive like a glove, meeting all of the aforementioned criteria. Internet-ready? Check. Technically savvy, particularly in the areas of scanning and photo restoration? Check. Known for quality print work? Check. Energized by the massiveness of Ozzie's archive? Check. Marketing muscle? Check.

And—after just a little digging into Ozzie’s archive—they “got” his work. Who better to partner with in the development of OzzieSweet.com. 

Leading up to the launch of the site, the Gendrons spent many months scanning and preparing highlights from Ozzie’s vast archive. They have carefully selected—with Diane’s involvement—images that present well at larger sizes. Buyers and collectors and anyone interested Ozzie Sweet’s America, as captured between the early 1940s and into the 21st century, will be pleased. 

An Ozzie Renaissance

Personally, I'm excited by this rebirth of Ozzie Sweet's archive. I'm lucky I got to know Ozz, to work with him, to review and curate his archive, to travel hundreds of miles to baseball camps with him late in his life, and to become his for some 20 years. After investigating his work, you'll feel like you know him, too. His photographs, after all, reflect his personality: bright, optimistic, and resilient, with that sense of humor.

So whether you have arrived at OzzieSweet.com to buy or browse or just stumbled upon the site, whether you’re a longtime Ozzie fan or just discovering his name, you’ll like it here. Nosing around the various categories will give you a smile. And I know somewhere in the heavens, my old friend Ozz is smiling over the fact that his archive is intact... and well-served.