Ozzie Sweet: photographer

Legendary photographer Ozzie Sweet of York Harbor, Maine, died Feb. 20, 2013, at age 94.

Legendary photographer Ozzie Sweet of York Harbor, Maine, died Feb. 20, 2013, at age 94.

One of the profound honors of working as a journalist is the privilege of peeking into the lives of fascinating human beings.

Showing up with a pen and some paper. Sharing a conversation. Then telling their story.

I spent about three hours with Ozzie Sweet at his home in York Harbor back in 2001. I had never heard of him, but I understood I would be meeting a man who, in addition to his legacy as a pioneering sports photographer, also created images from private moments shared with such 20th century icons as Grace Kelly, Jimmy Durante, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Albert Einstein.

Ozzie was famous for putting his famous subjects at ease — getting them to relax so, in an age peopled with stiffly posed portraits, a true-life image would emerge.

Now my job was to create a picture of him.

A black and white. Made up of words.

I was a little nervous. But, just as he did with his sports heroes and movie stars, Ozzie instantly put me at ease.

He was old as hell even back then (almost 83), exuding the white-haired wisdom of an ancient master, but his spirit … seemed to me almost preternaturally youthful.

His smile, ever-present, suggested a love of life and people. His eyes exuded warmth and invited intimacy.

And though I was “working,” when Oscar Cowan Corbo started telling his story, I was enchanted — feeling a bit like an awestruck audience member at a real-life matinee.

A certified dreamer born in 1918 and raised on a farm in New Russia, N.Y., he ran off to Hollywood as a young man. Charmed his way into a role in a movie starring John Wayne!

Drafted into the military during World War II, he loved taking photos of his fellow soldiers. One, a “simulated action” shot of an infantryman clenching a knife in his teeth, made the cover of Newsweek.

This led to a job as a Newsweek cover specialist.

Ultimately, his work would appear on thousands of magazine covers — Sport, Boy’s Life, Ebony, Cosmopolitan, TV Guide, The Saturday Evening Post and countless others.

And though here the roles were reversed — he was sitting for a cover piece in the Sunday Portsmouth Herald — he could not have been more gracious.

Answering a thousand questions as someone else’s camera fired away. Bantering back and forth with me and with my friend Deb Cram, the photographer tasked with shooting the legendary shooter.

When it was time to go — time for me to head back to the newsroom and “develop” my notes — I felt energized but also a little on edge, bearing the responsibility for telling the story of such an amazing man. This better be one of the best stories I would ever write, or else I would feel that I had failed.

Of all the anecdotes he told that day, the one I found most compelling, and endearing, was his interlude with Albert Einstein.

Time magazine was honoring him as “Person of the Century” and Ozzie was sent off to Princeton University where Einstein was teaching.

Ever the people person, Sweet bonded with him — coaxing a chuckle and a smile now frozen in time — by needling the Nobel Prize winner about his shoes.

Rather than write “York Harbor resident Ozzie Sweet is a legendary photographer who blah blah blah Joe DiMaggio…” I chose to begin my report with the words: He made Einstein laugh.

Surely, people could not resist reading on from there — my rambling tale of this quintessentially American, self-made gentleman whose life’s work created a technicolor prism through which to view the stars who illuminated a broad swath of the 20th century.

The Einstein encounter, which I teased in the beginning but saved for the end, went like this:

“I was a little bit of a wise guy, I guess,” Sweet told me. He noticed that the great man’s Oxford-style shoes had the laces removed and the backs flattened down for easy access, and teasingly suggested the fashion statement gave the eccentric Nobel prize winner “a certain dash.”

“He really cracked up,” says Sweet. “I was surprised that he had such a ready laugh. … He was such a jolly fellow.”

The story ended as follows:

The moment is memorable even for Sweet. Now, as he nears his 83rd birthday, he remains animated by a life spent documenting the people and events of this century in thousands of timeless still lifes.

Yes, there is Ozzie Sweet — still taking photographs. And, thanks in part to this remarkable image-maker, there is Albert Einstein — still laughing.

When I look back, I don’t mind admitting that the story, and the man who inspired it, rank among my all-time favorites.

Yes, he made Einstein laugh. And, though he passed away Feb. 20 at age 94, thinking of Ozzie Sweet never fails to make me smile.

— John Breneman

Here is a link to my Ozzie Sweet feature story from July 1, 2001.


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(Portsmouth Herald: March 3, 2013)

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