By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
The images, decades later, are still all around us. They hang in campus sports bars and restaurants that have stood the test of time. They are framed in athletic Halls of Fame. They are in football press guides, history and reference books.
There’s Pat Sullivan, Auburn’s 1971 Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, ball in hands, eyes focused downfield seeking a supposed open receiver. There’s Billy Cannon, LSU’s 1959 Heisman Trophy winning running back, cutting hard off his right foot and stiff arming an imaginary oncoming defender. There’s Ron Widby, Tennessee’s 1966 All-American punter, with his kicking leg stretched to the sky like a ballet dancer, his toes pointed perfectly. There’s Johnny Vaught, Ole Miss’ legendary coach, wearing a snappy fedora, staring confident and cool into the camera.
For 40 years from 1947 to 1986, such photos known as “posed action” were the work of Jim Laughead (pronounced “Lawhead”) and his son-in-law James “Brad” Bradley. Their fledging Dallas, Texas-based business Laughead Photography exploded into a nationally renowned business in the early 1960s after LSU contracted the duo to shoot publicity photos of its athletes.
In their heyday, Jim and Brad had about 44 colleges and numerous NFL teams as clients, as well as shooting photos for Topps major league baseball cards. Traveling in a Buick Roadmaster station wagon stuffed with 1,500 pounds of equipment, they would drive 9,000 miles each spring for six weeks from college campus to college campus, snapping 40,000 plus pictures. Then in July, they’d head to NFL camps. From early morning to late afternoon, the camera clicking never stopped. The work never ended. There were long drives on bad roads, such from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to Manhattan, Kansas. But what was created was photographic magic. Large, angry linemen were frozen flying through the air like Superman. Quarterbacks were always cocked to throw. Running backs knew how to throw a stiff-arm and grimace simultaneously for the camera. Defensive backs floated skyward for interceptions.
“I think our work was unique and had great quality,” says Brad, now 90 and still blessed with a keen eye and a sharp clicker finger. “I really believe we helped form some of the enthusiasm for college football and basketball that has continually grown over the years. I’m proud to have been a part of it.” Brad possessed limited photography experience when he was discharged in January 1946 after serving in the Army Air Corps in World War II. Five months later, he married his sweetheart Betty Laughead, whose father Jim was a former Associated Press photographer shooting pictures for Consolidated Aircraft in Fort Worth.
Jim was raised in Detroit (he used to clean the famed Ty Cobb’s dog kennels to get free tickets to Tigers’ games) and eventually made his way to Ohio State where he barely passed photography. But he stuck with it, and began working for the AP in Texas in 1936. In 1947, Brad and Betty were working for the War Assets Administration in Texarkana when Jim called. He had gotten a contract to shoot all the pictures for the Southern Methodist University yearbook in Dallas. “Laughead told me he couldn’t do it by himself,” Brad says. “He said, `I don’t know what the future holds, but I need help. I’d like for us to do it together.’ I was just 23 years old. Being young and energetic, my wife and I said `Yes’ and we both came back from Texarkana.”
Jim and Brad opened Laughead Photography in a studio across from the SMU campus on Hillcrest. It was the perfect location for their first job. Jim, because he had photographed many college games in the Southwest Conference on AP assignments, began contacting league members seeking their business for posed action shots. It was a niche created by Jim and Brad, using unique techniques such as placing camera on the ground and shooting up to make even the most average-sized players look like skyscrapers. When shooting basketball pictures, Jim or Brad would climb on a ladder to shoot just above rim level to create the illusion.
The University of Texas contracted Jim and Brad, which led to more work and another connection. LSU sports information director Jim Corbett noticed the Longhorns’ sharp publicity shots that Texas sent LSU for the Tigers’ game program. Before Corbett left to take a job with NBC early in 1953 (he returned to LSU in 1955 as athletic director), he hired Jim and Brad.
Ace Higgins, Corbett’s successor as LSU sports information director, suggested Jim and Brad shoot pictures in the spring instead of just before football season. The relaxed schedule worked for both parties, and soon Laughead Photography was swamped with business. By 1960, Jim and Brad had contracts with every SEC school and it began spreading to the ACC, and the NFL as well.
“It all started with LSU, it opened up the floodgates for our business,” Brad recalls. “We always loved going there, because Ace made us feel like family. LSU would put us up for three days in Broussard Hall, the athletic dorm. I was in Ace’s office when I got a phone call that my first child had been born.” Along the way, there were plenty of adventures for Jim and Brad, such as the time Jim got in a fight in North Louisiana after a road rage incident involving three Air Corps members.
“It ended up in a scuffle and Laughead got hit in the eye,” Brad says. “It was hurting him pretty good by the time we got to Baton Rouge. After we finished at LSU, we went to Mississippi State. Finally, we went to shoot Ole Miss. Billy Gates, Ole Miss’ information director, arranged for Laughead to see a doctor, who told Laughead he had a detached retina. “For the rest of that year, Laughead worked with a patch over his eye. I don’t know how he did it. But after he got in that fight, I never let him drive again. I did all the driving. Drove every mile the rest of the time we were together.” The driving could often be horrific, because interstate systems were far from developed. A drive like from LSU to Auburn could last a lot longer than anticipated as Jim and Brad found out in 1953.
“We drove overnight and we didn’t get to Auburn until about 4 in the morning,” Brad recalls. “We had a photo shoot in the stadium about 8. “So we just pull up outside the stadium and throw down some of the quilts we had for our equipment. We slept on those quilts for a couple of hours before Shug Jordan, Auburn’s coach, saw us sleeping out there. “We got ready for the shoot, and we looked like we’d been on an all-night drunk. Shug took aside Bill Beckwith, Auburn’s sports information director and said, `Who in the heck did you hire to shoot our football pictures? They look like two vagabonds.’ “We just started working. And the first Auburn player we photographed was Vince Dooley.”
Jim and Brad made a good team. Brad was the silent, steady worker bee who handled head and group still photos. Jim put every ounce of his personality into his work to get the very best action pictures from often-reluctant athletes.
Part of Jim’s shtick was wearing a crumpled $1.95 hat that he bought in 1936. He never got it cleaned, because he was afraid it would fall apart. He once drove 65 miles back to a restaurant in North Carolina, because he had left the hat behind. “I never wear a hat in normal human life, but the players expect me to wear it when I take their pictures,” Jim said in a 1964 Sports Illustrated article. “I tried to give it up one year. When I got to Ole Miss the players went on strike until I got it again. You should have heard them give that Rebel Yell when I got the hat out of the car." Brad laughs when asked about Jim’s hat.
“It was just terribly abused,” Brad says. “It seems like the rougher it got, the more important it was to football players. Big linemen would put on that silly hat and do the `Death Dive.’ The hat broke down barriers and got players to relax.” Once Jim and Brad’s business spread to the pros in 1961, they saw familiar faces they’d already shot in college. “When we went to shoot the Packers, it was like old home week,” Brad says. “We’d see Jimmy Taylor from LSU, Bart Starr from Alabama and Forrest Gregg from SMU. They’d prepare the other players who’d never worked with us. “And (Green Bay) Coach (Vince) Lombardi was funny at times. Once we went straight from Buffalo, which was in the AFL, to Green Bay to shoot pictures. When Lombardi finds out we just came from Buffalo, he starts giving us a hard time, because he didn’t like the AFL. He says, `I don’t know why you’re even messing with that league.’ “I think the NFL coaches liked us, because we broke up the monotony of training camps.”
Because of Jim’s animated personality, there was a lot of laughing at photo shoots, especially when he popped out from behind the camera to demonstrate exactly what he wanted a player to do. Jim’s two signature poses were the Huck and Buck and the Death Dive.
“The Huck and Buck pose was usually for a linebacker or a pulling lineman,” Brad says. “Laughead wanted players to bring their knees up high like they were stepping over blocking dummies. It looks real good if you are photographing at an angle and players bring their knees up high. “There was a kid at Mississippi State didn’t understand the pose. One of his buddies told him, `It’s just like the Hucklebuck Dance.’ Laughead misunderstood and thought it was Huckin’ and Buckin’. That’s where Huck and Buck came from.” The Death Dive always involved a happy-go-lucky big lineman who didn’t mind getting airborne and spreading his arms wide before crashing to the ground in a heap. “When we first started out, a kid would run, leave his feet and have so much momentum that he would roll into the camera,” Brad says. “The coaches hated that. There was a lineman at Texas Tech who separated his shoulder doing the Death Dive. J.T. King, Texas Tech’s coach, wasn’t happy about losing a player posing for pictures. That might have been the closest we came to getting fired. “So we started getting kids to stand about three feet from the camera and just springing forward.”
Jim retired in the 1970s, became a widower, re-married moved to Florida and died in the late 1980s. Brad carried on the business until 1986 when he sold it to the employees. Since then, Brad has worked on a contract basis, especially for SMU and the Cotton Bowl where he shoots pictures at bowl’s events. He’s so beloved that the Cotton Bowl inducted Brad into its Hall of Fame in 2007.
“Through the years, many things have come and gone with our bowl,” says Rick Baker, the Cotton Bowl’s executive director, “but Brad Bradley is our common thread.”
Brad, who lost his Betty in July 2010, says he’s looking forward to his 66th straight Cotton Bowl game on Jan. 4 when Texas A&M faces Oklahoma. Brad’s first Cotton Bowl in 1948 featured SMU’s Heisman Trophy winning running back Doak Walker, and this year new SEC member A&M features Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Johnny Manziel. “I’m staying busy and staying healthy,” says Brad, whose son Jimmy and daughter Iris live in the Dallas area. “I still enjoy what I do. I’m having fun.”