The Los Angeles Dodgers are picking up where they left off last year by winning five of their first six games of the 2021 season, and the defending World Series champions are set to play their home opener against the Washington Nationals today.
After what will be infamously known as Major League Baseball’s “pandemic season” that was shortened and did not allow spectators in Dodger Stadium due to COVID-19, L.A. fans will finally be able to watch stars such as Mookie Betts and Clayton Kershaw trot out of the dugout this weekend.
They will see another familiar face on the field — one that gave Dodgers fans images they will always cherish from an unforgettable 2020 campaign where their beloved team finally ended a 32-year World Series championship drought by defeating the Tampa Bay Rays in six games last October.
“I’m on the field this game [against the Nationals],” confirmed former South Pasadena resident Jon SooHoo, the well-known official Dodgers photographer who has chronicled the organization since 1985.
This season is No. 37 for SooHoo, who has become a local legend taking iconic photos of notable players and moments in nearly every sport. From Kirk Gibson’s famous game-winning home run in the 1988 World Series to Kobe Bryant’s Lakers career to the Kings’ Stanley Cup run in 2014, he has covered just about every significant event in the L.A. sports scene the past three decades.
“It’s been a gift from God. There’s no doubt in my mind. I couldn’t have planned this stuff,” SooHoo said of his career. “I was a gerontology major. I know I’m blessed.”
There wasn’t a road map to pursue photography when Sohoo, 58, attended USC in the early 1980s, but his journey into the profession began when he was a child. He often played sports with his friends and attended Trojan football games at the Coliseum with his parents Pete Jr. and Lucy, who were season-ticket holders, and couldn’t help but wonder about the small number of people on such a large field.
“I asked my mom, ‘How do we get down there to the field?’ There was hardly anyone,” SooHoo said. “There wasn’t much media down on the field back then.”
That curiosity led him to taking a photography class in eighth grade. After graduating from Los Angeles Marshall High School in 1985, SooHoo attended USC and majored in gerontology because there was no fine art photography major at the time. He was able to dabble in photography by joining the university’s Daily Trojan newspaper staff and covered basketball and football games without having much experience.
“I was just doing what I did on the fly,” he said. “I made prints and would throw them on the table for my mom to see. [My parents] were fans but they didn’t think I would make a career out of it. They just wanted me to be happy. I’m blessed that I had wonderful parents who gave me enough of a leash to let me do what I do until I landed and was able to make a living out of it.”
It wasn’t always easy for SooHoo, who was — and continues to be — his own worst critic.
“There’s always a game where I’m missing something. Every freaking game,” he said. “When I first started, I missed touchdown passes in the corner of the end zone because I was gawking more than I was shooting. You just learn more as you go.”
One person in particular helped SooHoo develop his craft and skill. Covering local sports landed SooHoo an opportunity to meet Andrew Bernstein, a legend in the sports photography scene who has covered the Lakers since 1983. The two ended up working together and the experience became sort of a mentorship for the former Trojan.
“It was me learning a lot from him,” SooHoo said of his early days working with Bernstein. “That was my school. I learned how to light portraits and about [strobe lights]. I would have never thought about all that. The shots that came out were beautiful, but I really learned a lot about how [Bernstein] dealt with people and how he dealt with the business end of photography.”
That connection and working with the Daily Trojan opened doors to the stadiums and courts he admired as a young sports fan. After shooting a USC women’s basketball game at the L.A. Sports Arena, which was demolished in 2016, SooHoo stuck around to catch the next scheduled event.
“There was a Clippers game right after,” he said. “I figured I’m already here and just continued shooting. As time went by, I thought, ‘This is pretty cool.’”
SooHoo began acquiring more credentials and tagged along with Bernstein for NBA assignments covering the Lakers.
“It was awesome,” he said. “It was Magic Johnson. It was [the Showtime era].”
Soon after, SooHoo earned the opportunity of a lifetime and was hired as the Dodgers official photographer in 1985. Three years later, he witnessed and shot one of the most iconic moments in all of sports when Gibson shocked the world with a walk-off home run against the Oakland Athletics in Game 1 of the World Series on Oct. 15, 1988. The Dodgers were underdogs going into the series and went on to win in five games.
The photograph SooHoo took of Gibson has widely been used by publications, and it’s one that gives him hope for his passion and profession in a social media world.
“Social media is changing the art to be something else. It’s not necessarily art; it’s pumping quantity over quality,” SooHoo said. “The nature of the beast is changing, but the whole art of photography shouldn’t be lost because all of these entities dry up. The digital quality of [Gibson’s home run] looks rough on video. But you look at some of the stills, they’re still holding up because the quality then is the same as it is now. The video is so pixelated and blurry.”
Despite being critical of social media, SooHoo understands the benefits of it. He’s a popular figure among L.A. sports fans and has garnered more than 127,000 followers on Instagram, where he likes to post intimate behind-the-scenes portraits of Dodgers coaches and players.
“I’m able to get some really good shots when I’m in the clubhouse,” he said. “The portrait is genuine stuff. That is more heartwarming and special to me because only I can see it. That’s where the access means a lot to me. It’s an honor to be trusted enough to be allowed in that place. There are certain walls that will come up. Sooner or later, I’ll get cut off. Until that day comes, I’m going to continue to do what I do.”
One big wall SooHoo managed to bring down was with Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax, who avoids media attention. The photographer convinced the legendary Dodger to pose in uniform for a photo with Clayton Kershaw in the bullpen before the Old-Timers’ game in 2015. SooHoo could hear Koufax conversing with Kershaw as the three walked through the hallway en route to the bullpen and he thought to himself, “Just turn around and take a photo you idiot.”
So he did, and SooHoo ended up snapping what became his favorite Dodgers photo.
“It’s my favorite because it connected the old with the new.”
Pictures of the two pitchers were taken in the bullpen as planned but haven’t seen the light of day.
“The photo out in the bullpen was horrible and that’s one you’ll never see,” SooHoo said.
The picture of two generations of remarkable left-handed Dodgers pitchers is one he’d want showcased in a gallery along with the iconic posed shot of Bryant lying down on the court with a basketball under his head. The image was widely used after the Lakers legend’s death last year and was also featured on the cover of a special ESPN magazine that paid tribute to Bryant.
“Those will always be my favorites,” he said. “That Kobe one is timeless now. … It was early in Kobe’s career and it was just another photo shoot for me. But it was pretty cool because I was taking pride in the fact that I wasn’t doing a sports photo. It was a portrait, and it was on film, not digital. When he passed, I knew it would have some relevance in people’s eyes.”
The intimacy and detail of such photographs certainly made a fan out of the Dodgers’ official historian Mark Langill, who first met SooHoo when they both worked at the Pasadena Star-News in the 1980s.
“So many people take him for granted,” said Langill, a South Pasadena resident. “Every picture that he takes, it seems everything is perfect and in focus. Every now and then he’ll blow me away with a shot, and I’ll remind him he’s still got his fastball. It doesn’t have to be a famous moment or a famous person. He can make any seemingly mundane moment suddenly special.”
Langill has campaigned for SooHoo to be recognized by the Baseball Hall of Fame for his contributions to the sport and even went as far as to print T-shirts years ago that said, “SooHoo HOF.”
“You can be a sportswriter, a broadcaster or an umpire and be in the Hall of Fame,” Langill said. “There’s something for everyone in the Hall of Fame except for photographers. I don’t understand why. Photographers precede radio and television. The stuff he does is legendary.”
Being recognized by the Baseball Hall of Fame isn’t on SooHoo’s radar. The humble, personable photographer just has a simple goal in mind.
“I have a mentality that if I can get a picture on everyone’s refrigerator or mantel of memories of their life, then I know I’ve done good,” SooHoo said. “I want to be known as a good dude. That’s probably it more than anything.”
There is at least one notable person that cherishes a portrait taken by SooHoo.
“[Vin Scully’s daughter] told me that there’s a picture that he brought to the hospital the night his wife passed away,” SooHoo said. “The picture was one I shot at Dodger Stadium of the two with a rainbow behind them.
“[Scully] really is a special man and so humble. He has no chip on his shoulder and he’s so appreciative of it all. He’s just a wonderful human being.”
The grounded photographer shares a similar appreciation for the organization that hired him four decades ago. He still relishes game days at Dodger Stadium. When asked if he gets tired of the site, he quickly responded, “Hell no.”
“I’d go there regardless if there is a game or not,” SooHoo said. “I used to spend all day and night there. It was my chance to get away from everybody, where I can be me. To be able to walk at Dodger Stadium at night when nobody’s around is just incredible. It’s like a closed museum. It’s so cool.”
It was a similar feeling covering the team in 2020 without any fans in attendance due to COVID-19 protocols. Photographers were not permitted on the field, so he positioned himself in the outfield stands with a longer camera lens to document what was an odd and tough year for everyone.
“It gave me perspective,” he said. “There’s more to life than just sports. I had friends and relatives who were dying, and it puts it all into perspective.”
The experience left him looking forward to the 2021 season.
“I don’t really know what to expect, but I’m just going to continue to do what I’m doing,” said SooHoo. “There will probably be a lot of hiccups along the way because of COVID, but I’m ready for whatever. I’ll just roll with it because it’s what I do.”