53 Days Of Sun, Sand And Swimsuits

Posted: April 21, 1990

It would help if you could dig out your copy of the February Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue - that's right, the well-thumbed one with the broken spine and the dog-eared edges.

Now turn to the page where model Kathy Ireland, wearing not much of a black swimsuit and a sprinkling of sand on her derriere, casts a half-shy, half-foxy smile behind her.

"It's graphic. It's the Sports Illustrated style of titillation, a piquey kind of style. The sand suggests she was involved in some activity. Her look is an 'Oops, you caught me.' And it's her little rear end."

Speaking is Robert Huntzinger, 59, photographer for this year's swimsuit issue.

He is sitting at the dining-room table in his stone Colonial farmhouse in Bucks County, miles and merciful miles away from the sand, the sun, the salt water and a hundred other problems that make life annoying for a man who gets paid to look at lovely women in various stages of undress.

Ho-hum, says Huntzinger.

"You'd turn around and there would be a naked woman. But it's not that kind of situation. You're there working."

Besides, daily wake-up calls to catch dawn's early light and the logistical nightmare of moving 50 or so cases of photographic equipment plus a couple of 250-pound power generators through sand and surf has a wearing effect on anyone's enthusiasm.

But let's get back to the magazine:

Ireland, a brunette with dark wavy hair, is leaning against a boat that could almost be an accessory.

The boat is black. It's got the same fluorescent-bright stripes as her suit. And it was total coincidence.

Sports Illustrated editor Jule Campbell brought about a thousand swimsuits to the September shoot - the better to match the right suits with the right models.

Meanwhile, Huntzinger mentally reviewed some of the locations he had picked out and photographed during an earlier scouting trip to the Windward Islands - the oxidized stone walls of Fort Charlotte on St. Vincent, for example, and nearby surf-polished ebony stones on the beach.

The two shuffled through instant photos taken of the models during fittings and thought about how everything could fit together and into the concept for this year's issue. The concept?

"More action," Huntzinger explains. "More leaping, running and jumping . . . to give as much of a sense of place as possible and to present black women - not as tokens, but as women, because they are beautiful, not just

because they are black."

While all this thinking was going on, Huntzinger and Campbell spotted the boat.

"He loved that boat," Campbell said. "I said, 'I think I have a swimsuit to match.' "

Although he spent 53 days in the Caribbean for the Sports Illustrated job, Huntzinger does many of his shoots at his home in Pleasant Valley, complete with horses, daffodils, ducks, a pond and a big barn that he uses as a studio. One hot July day, a truckload of white plastic pellets piled against the barn turned his farm into a winter wonderland for a snowmobile advertisement.

"People say, 'Isn't the photographer a genius?' " says Huntzinger. "If the photographer's a genius, it's because he's been able to surround himself with people who will do everything but fall on their swords to get the props, the right location, and to coerce the models."

In many cases, his wife, Doris, takes on that role, acting as location scout, chief cook and bottle washer.

An uncle introduced Huntzinger to photography when he was a youngster in Pittsburgh. Huntzinger spent his summers in Schuylkill Haven, Pa., working with his grandfather, a gravedigger. That's where he enrolled in one of those magazine correspondence courses.

"I got all A's and I thought, 'This can't be right.' " Meanwhile, he photographed awkward adolescents at senior proms, chased after airplane crashes for newspapers and managed to befriend a couple of influential people (veteran Life magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith and his mentor, Roy Stryker, who commissioned government photographers to capture images of the Depression). They helped him get some early assignments in Life magazine. And

from there it snowballed.

"It was just dumb luck," he says.

The kind of luck that landed him in the Caribbean.

Another secret: Actually, he says, some of the women weren't all that beautiful. "They happen to photograph well. They have bone structures that light hits the correct way and makes them look outstanding on film. But when you meet some of them in person, they don't make your eyes roll up and down.

"Everyone should be beautiful for 1/250 of a second," he says. And then he generously mentions the magic of Francois Ilnesher, a makeup genius who spent hours on the shoot putting every hair in place and turning each woman's face into a painting for the swimsuit gala.

In fact, by the time Huntzinger woke up at 4 a.m. for 5:30 shoots, the models had been sprayed and painted for at least an hour, he said.

Some of the shots required cast, crew and cameras to take an early-morning boat trip to an outer island, where they'd have to ferry themselves and all the equipment to shore in a smaller boat.

"The problem is that you are doing all this in darkness and it's very dangerous. You can shear a propeller. It just adds to the trauma," Huntzinger says.

To lug all the equipment across the sand, Huntzinger modified an all- terrain tricycle so it could easily be lifted from the big boat and put on the little boat.

With its balloon tires, the vehicle acted as a locomotive to pull three garden carts full of gear.

It was that kind of ingenuity that impressed Campbell. "He came well- prepared for all emergencies," she said.

The equipment included a leaf blower to wind-sweep the models' tresses and to groom the beach. His assistants also used rakes and shovels to clean the sand. One island had magnificent black and blue beaches - black sand littered with blue plastic bags used to protect bananas, the island's principal crop.

"Many of the photographs are shot between piles of garbage, or near a stinking mound of conch shells," Huntzinger says.

Plus, the combination of sand, surf and salt water wreaked havoc with his equipment. A $20,000 set of computerized cameras purchased for the shoot fell apart in a few days.

To keep his tripods from corroding, his two assistants had to take them in the shower with them every day.

True, Huntzinger is complaining, but not really. And when asked how much Sports Illustrated paid him, Huntzinger will say only: "No comment."

Though he wouldn't dream of vacationing anywhere near sand, he likes the variety that sends him all over the world.

"Nowadays everyone specializes," Huntzinger says. "They want someone who does oranges and someone else who does sliced oranges. I like variety. That's where the kick is for me. I couldn't stand to do just girls in swimsuits or just cars. It's got to be fun, or else it's just a trip to the bank."

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