He got his start by taking pictures of Doak Walker at the 1948 Cotton Bowl. Since then, he’s photographed sports luminaries from Willie Mays to Michael Jordan.
DALLAS — Memories of a lifetime, moments permanently frozen for eternity — that’s what photographs are.
And seizing those moments — capturing those memories — is what James T. “Brad” Bradley has always done.
Well, just for the last 75 years, anyway.
They say it’s impossible to document life without truly living life. Reflecting on the 100 years he’s lived, and three-quarters of that time that he’s spent working as a sports photographer, Bradley is pretty confident he’s lived a full life.
At the very least, it’s a path he says he’s delighted to have traveled, having driven thousands of miles to no only rub shoulders with legends of sport — names like Michael Jordan, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Roger Staubach, to name just a very few — but to archive the memories of their achievements through the lens of his camera.
“I enjoy what I do,” Bradley says now, reflecting on all those he’s been blessed to have photographed throughout the years. “[Even if] I’m not as effective as I once was.”
Photography entered Bradley’s life following his return from a tour in WWII. That’s when he and his father-n-law, Jim Laughead, opened their first photography studio — a small operation located just a stone’s throw from the SMU campus.
Two years later, snapping sports pictures would officially become his calling. It was at the age of 25 that Bradley found himself roaming the sidelines, his vintage Crown Graphic Camera in hand, at his very first college bowl game — the 1948 Cotton Bowl.
There, 27,000 chilled fans came to see Southern Methodist University sparkplug Doak Walker run up against the vaunted Penn State Nittany Lions. Bradley did the same; he just so happened to have his camera along with him as he did.
Sometimes in life, timing is everything. And so it was for Bradley at that football game.
“If it wasn’t for Doak and SMU’s success at the time, my dad’s career probably wouldn’t have been what it would have been,” says Bradley’s son, Jimmy Bradley.
Shooting that game opened doors for Bradley to shoot more athletes, more games, more portraits. And for the last 75 years, he’s kept it up, refusing to call it quits.
“My life, I believe, was extended because of the joy that I gathered from traveling around the country, working with athletes,” says Bradley.
Life occasionally does come full-circle, too.
On a recent afternoon at the Statler Hotel in Downtown Dallas, Bradley and his son set up a photoshoot unlike any other they’d hosted in recent memory.
Former SMU Mustangs running back Jerry LeVias, the first Black scholarship athlete in the Southwest Conference and a photo subject of Bradley’s, joined them for the session, posing under their lights.
“I think we’re supposed to make a picture of you,” Bradley told LeVias after an embrace the long lost friends shared immediately upon their reunion 57 years after their first meeting.
“It would be an honor,” LeVias replied.
Time may have stolen steadiness, with wear and tear only serving as reminders. But each click and every flash of the camera has a magical way of transcending time through the eyes of an artist.
Mr. Bradley, 100 years strong and still going knows better than most that it’s the people that are closest to our hearts who actually enlighten our hearts.
In his element and snapping away on his camera, Bradley can’t help but smile at the fact that, even now, he’s still living his dream.
“We’re doing good, Jerry,” Bradley tells his model. “Let’s do two or three more.”
Children’s author Dr. Seuss once wrote that, “Sometimes, you never know the value of a moment until it’s a memory.”
Bradley’s never needed that reminder. And looking back on the memories he’s compiled throughout the years, he can’t help but value each and every one.
“If I could relive it,” he says of his life, “I don’t think I’d change a lot.”
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