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Hy Peskin, 89; Sports Action Photographer Reinvented Himself as a Philanthropist

June 10, 2005|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Hy Peskin, a leading sports action photographer who split his life into two distinct parts when he became a philanthropist and renamed himself Brian Blaine Reynolds, has died. He was 89.

Peskin died June 2 of kidney disease at a hospital in Herzliya, Israel, his family said.

From the 1940s to 1960s, as a sports photographer who could distill drama and emotion in often poetic pictures, he was known as Hy Peskin. But in 1964, he suddenly reinvented himself as a philanthropist and entrepreneur, creating a new identity from the middle names of his three sons.

In 1954, Peskin became the first staff photographer hired by Sports Illustrated. Two of his images made the magazine's list of favorite photos of the 20th century.

One, of Carmen Basilio leaping into the arms of his cornermen after knocking out Tony DeMarco in their 1955 welterweight title fight, was said to partly inspire the set design for the film "Rocky." The black-and-white image walked "the line between reportage and film noir," the magazine said.

The other, an image from the 1950 U.S. Open taken from behind Ben Hogan at the end of a swing, showing the extra spike in his shoe for increased balance as well as the crowd surrounding him, became one of golf's most famous photographs.

"Here's Ben Hogan on this incredible comeback from near death in an auto accident, and Hy takes this iconic photograph. He had a wonderful ability to capture great moments in American sports," said Neil Leifer, a leading photographer who said he grew up worshiping Peskin's action photography before working with him at Sports Illustrated.

"I still feel like he was the greatest sports photographer of all time," Leifer said.

Peskin, a loner, sought out unusual vantage points at a time when sports photographers commonly hung out as a pack in the press box. He was the first sports photographer to move down to the field and shoot from ground level, Leifer said.

He went on to shoot more than 40 covers for Sports Illustrated and freelance for such magazines as Time, Life and Look.

In 1953, Peskin, who couldn't swim and was frightened on the water, shot a series of photos that were his favorites -- a barefoot John F. Kennedy sailing with his future wife, Jacqueline Bouvier. One landed on the cover of Life.

He is also credited with taking the first action photographs in color, showing a boxing match in 1945.

The Brooklyn native, the son of a tailor from Minsk, Belarus, Peskin liked to refer to himself as "a kid from the slums." He began his career during the Depression as a sportswriter for the New York Daily Mirror. He soon switched to photography when he found he could make more money -- $21 a week.

While covering Brooklyn Dodgers games at Ebbets Field, he would climb on the roof or crouch in the aisles, and often came up with a startling perspective.

"I helped make the Dodgers famous," he said more than once, "and they helped make me."

By the early 1960s, he was ready to pursue different goals. He created the Academy of Achievement and decided to hold an annual tribute in which highly accomplished adults could mingle with high-achieving youths. The idea came to Peskin when he realized the famous people he photographed rarely had a chance to meet one other.

But celebrities were wary that Peskin was trying to lure them to an event just so he could take their pictures, said his son, Wayne.

Peskin often said he legally changed his name in an effort to distance himself from his career as a photographer.

But he also worried that his Jewish-sounding name was a liability in fundraising, he told the Washington Post in 2002.

After Wayne began running the academy in 1985, Peskin sued him more than a dozen times to try to regain control of the organization. As the result of one lawsuit, Peskin was granted a $10,000-a-month pension from the Washington, D.C.-based academy, which continues to hold annual tributes and has a membership roster that reads like a global Who's Who.

Peskin taught each of his sons to take action photographs. Once when the 16-year-old Wayne returned to the family's La Jolla home after shooting a Chargers game, he got an earful from his father for using 16 rolls of film, said Andy Hayt, director of photography for the San Diego Union-Tribune, in a tribute on SportsShooter.com.

"Mr. Reynolds felt that anything less than 25 rolls was completely unacceptable for a photographer to turn in for a Sports Illustrated assignment," Hayt said.

At the time of his death, Reynolds was building a home in Israel. He also lived in Plano, Texas.

In addition to his son Wayne, he is survived by two other sons from his first marriage, Evan and Ron; his second wife, Adriana Reynolds; two sons from that marriage, Brian and Preston; and a granddaughter. His first wife, Blanche, died in 1978.

Services will be at 11 a.m. Sunday in San Diego at El Camino Mortuary, 5600 Carroll Canyon Road.

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