Jeff’s Gold Rush
“I’m friends with a lot of the athletes, and I recognise and understand the different moments they go through.” Photographer Jeff Cohen talks about his intimate and powerful shots of the stars of track and field
By Daisy Woodward
Photography by Jeff Cohen
A triumphant Sha’Carri Richardson stretches her arms out wide and emits a joyful shout, just seconds after winning a 100-metre sprint at the 2021 U.S. Track and Field Olympic trials; illustrious runner Allyson Felix crouches nimbly at the starting blocks, staring determinedly ahead as she prepares for the gun to sound; high-jump star Vashti Cunningham kneels calmly on the ground, angling both hands towards the camera to show off her multi-coloured nail polish.
These evocative scenes are just three among hundreds of thousands captured by American track and field photographer Jeff Cohen, yet they are emblematic of his knack for capturing the sport – made up of differing forms of running, jumping, and throwing – and all the little moments that make it so exciting. His pictures are deftly rendered, intimate and emotional, vibrant and vital. Where some sports photographers and paparazzi simply show up, shoot the action and deliver their photos to their respective agencies, Jeff’s approach is defined by the close relationships he fosters, his appreciation for the art of photography and, above all, his enduring love of athletics.
“My father used to run in high school and college,” the California native explains over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “He was one of the better runners in the state, and he’s been taking me to track and athletic meets since I was in nappies.” His father also introduced him to photography, presenting him with a small plastic camera at the age of four. Together, the pair have embarked on countless father-son trips to watch the world’s best athletes in action. “We’ve been to 10 or 11 world championships and five or six Olympic games,” Jeff says fondly – and he always had his camera close to hand. “I’d run all over the place trying to get good shots, getting as close as I could to the lower rail, getting up high.”
Jeff went on to pursue a career in photography, creating his own fine art images and working as a portrait and events photographer for many years, but it wasn’t until 2011 that he decided to turn his lens to track and field in a professional capacity. “I remember being up on the stands and looking down at the photographers, all huddled at the finish line. I wanted to know what was going on at the starting line, or as the athletes were getting ready, or after they’d finished an event. Eventually, I made a website of my work, started applying for credentials – and here we are,” he chuckles.
Motivated to get the shots that he, as an ardent athletics fan, had so keenly wanted to see, Jeff set about forging connections in the close-knit track and field community to secure what he cheerfully dubs “the best seats in the house”. “I’m very personal; it’s very easy for me to talk to people,” he explains. “I often sit back and I talk; I don’t pull my camera out. I gauge what’s right and what’s wrong, and I think that’s allowed me to go further in the sport.” As such, he’s gained the trust of athletes, coaches and officials alike. “Now I can position myself between the starters and the athletes before a race, for instance, something they won’t allow anyone else to do usually, in case they jolt and cause a false start.”
Jeff’s respect and discretion is tangible, particularly in what he terms his “quieter” photographs, which depict athletes engaged in intensely private moments of introspection, nervous tension and mental preparation. “I’m friends with a lot of the athletes, and I recognise and understand the different moments they go through,” the image-maker explains. “That’s what I’m drawn to as a human being, as a fellow athlete. I feel that with my photography of track, I’m not just photographing it, I’m capturing the essence of it.” The same applies to Jeff’s photographs of the athletes in action, where his enthusiasm can be just as keenly felt. “I tell them that, when I’m on the field, looking through the lens, I’m right there with them. When they’re winning, when they’re losing, when they’re sweating, when they’re trying really hard – I can feel it. I have the adrenaline going through my veins!” In one particularly effervescent shot, high jumper Inika McPherson gazes directly at Jeff’s lens as she descends from a successful jump, as if sharing her victory, in that moment, directly with him.
Does he get an inkling, any sense of prescience when an athlete’s about to win big? “Photography is a bit like hunting,” he explains. “You’re using your knowledge to anticipate the moment.” This also means getting the technical settings just right, he adds. “You have to anticipate the lighting, whether it’s backlit, all those kinds of things. And sometimes it all pays off.”
Interestingly, some of Jeff’s closest friendships within the sport have been cultivated when his camera is nowhere in sight. Allyson Felix, Sydney McLaughlin and a number of other LA-based athletic stars train at the same track where Jeff goes to exercise. “Watching people I know grow, witnessing their journey, it’s indescribable,” he marvels. “The biggest profile I’ve followed throughout the years is probably Allyson, I’d say – I’ve seen her at practices, watched her competing in different places around the world, attending press conferences – and now I’m getting to follow Sydney on her journey.”
Again, you need only turn to the photographs for confirmation of the bonds Jeff shares with his subjects – for every image I mention, he responds with an intimate story. “Tara’s great for the sport, she has an amazing personality. I’m looking forward to seeing what becomes of her; she’s killing it!” he says, when I direct him to a picture of long-jump athlete Tara Davis, positively beaming in a cowgirl hat and boots after qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics. “She came to a local bar that evening wearing that exact same outfit and her medal,” he laughs.
The same goes for his image of runner-slash-model Kendall Baisden, standing resplendent in reflective Nike sunglasses and a sleek black one-piece with cut-out panels (“Kendall’s in Paris right now doing runway shows,” he says. “You can tell she’s into fashion – she had her own kit made.”) There’s another shot of long-jump and sprint athlete, Jasmine Todd, sitting pensively on a bench. “She’s a friend, a really cool girl. Do you see her nails say ‘Baby Flo’? That’s a nod to Flo-Jo, who holds the world record in the 100 metres. She died young, and Jasmine is coached by her husband, Al Joiner. He calls her Baby Flo.”
Part of the reason Jeff is so drawn to the athletes in track and field is their distinct individuality, he affirms. “Often they’re tatted, they have jewellery, amazing hair, nails, make-up. Sometimes both the men and the women have unique uniforms – I love it.” And in contrast to many of his peers, a sizable portion of Jeff’s output is devoted entirely to such details in close-up – from braids falling loosely down an athlete’s back, to a wolf tattoo adorning an upper thigh.
“I don’t put out bad pictures,” the photographer declares earnestly on the topic of personal aesthetics. “Unless it’s the only picture I have of you winning a gold medal, if you have spit coming out of your mouth, I won’t put it out. That’s part of being respectful – doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s also a question of quality control. “I’m very visual. I have a large collection of photography books, and I appreciate a good eye. The composition, colours and backgrounds have to be just so. Only a small percentage of the images I take make it out into the world.”
By presenting track and field in the best possible light – although of course he documents the losses and the falls – Jeff is also doing his part to “#keeptrackalive” to quote a hashtag on one of his Instagram posts. “I remember my father telling me that back in the ’60s, there would be these huge meets with 50,000 or more people,” he expands. “But now with the influx of television and marketing and all the billions of dollars going into all these other sports, there’s not enough space for track and field [to be appreciated on a large scale], which is a shame because it’s such a beautiful sport and so relatable. As children we all raced to the tree, or tried to throw the rock farther than our friends. The rules are so simple.”
So does Jeff have a favourite event to shoot, I enquire as our conversation draws to a close. “It changes all the time, but I’ve really gained an appreciation for the steeplechase since being on the field,” the photographer replies. “They run for about 13 minutes and there are these big wooden horse barriers they have to jump, with water below. With every lap I notice that the athletes’ grunts get louder and louder, and they have to keep jumping. They could break their bones. They’re warriors!” The most rewarding aspect of his job, he concludes, is “just being out there on the field”, being as close to the action as possible and delivering the immediacy and excitement he encounters to other track and field fanatics through his photographs. “Being at the Olympics or World Championships and having the world record holder do a jump in front of me, and the sand flying all over my camera, my face… I just sit up, look around and think, ‘How did I get here?’” he says. “It really is a blast.”