At the end of World War II, Ozzie Sweet’s picture of a friend posed as a German soldier surrendering appeared on the cover of Newsweek — “the magazine of news significance," as it billed itself then. Not a stratagem that would pass muster in contemporary journalism, but Sweet, who had apprenticed to the Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum, appeared in a Cecil B. DeMille film and helped create promotional ads for the U.S. Army, found the art in photography to be in creating an image, not capturing one.
He considered himself not a news photographer but a photographic illustrator, and like the work of the painter Norman Rockwell, whom he claimed as an influence, his signature images from the 1940s through the 1950s and into the 1960s, many in the fierce hues of increasingly popular color film that emulated the emergent Technicolor palate of U.S. movies, helped define — visually, anyway — an era.
Sweet, who was 94 when he died Wednesday at his home in York Harbor, Maine, took photographs that appeared on an estimated 1,800 magazine covers.
He shot, it seemed, for everyone, from top-flight general-interest publications like Look and Collier’s, to men’s magazines like Argosy, to women’s books like Family Circle, to myriad hunting and fishing publications (for which his deer and ducks were sometimes borrowed from a taxidermist), to photography magazines, recreation magazines (he shot a lot of young women on ski slopes and in bikinis on beaches) and health magazines.
He made Rockwell-like pictures of boys and their dogs, smiling soldiers returning from war, families on vacation. He also made garish photographs for lurid publications like Official Detective, for which one cover depicted a woman lying on an inflatable raft, seemingly about to be attacked by a scuba diver with a knife; and Real Romances, for which he depicted a young man and woman frolicking in a hayloft, next to the headline “Old Enough for Sin."
Much of his best-known work was portraiture. For Newsweek, he produced images of Albert Einstein in his office, smiling at a joke about his shoes; Ingrid Bergman in a suit of armor, her costume for a Broadway play; and Bob Feller simulating his windup. He photographed Dwight D. Eisenhower as the president of Columbia University, Jimmy Durante with a butterfly perched on his famous schnozz (it was glued there), Jack Nicklaus in a fake follow-through for Golf. He photographed Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West, Fla., full of cats, for Cat Fancy.
But Sweet became most closely associated with Sport, a monthly magazine that predated Sports Illustrated and after 1947 featured dozens, if not hundreds, of his portraits on its cover. Johnny Unitas, Jim Brown, Maurice Richard, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle were all his subjects.
Sometimes, he positioned them trading-card style, in poses suggestive of action, as with Jackie Robinson seemingly in midslide; sometimes, he contrived an imaginative image, as he did with Roger Maris, with a half-dozen bats flying in the air around him. (To make the picture Sweet suspended the bats in midair with fishing line.) Still others were immediate, intimate close-ups.
He took dozens of pictures of Mantle, many collected in a 1998 book, “Mickey Mantle: The Yankee Years," in collaboration with the writer Larry Canale. The two men later traveled together during spring training and produced a second book of old and new photographs, “The Boys of Spring: Scenic Images From the Grapefruit League, 1948-2004."
Ozzie Sweet was born Oscar Cowan Corbo on Sept. 10, 1918, in Stamford, Conn. His parents divorced when he was a toddler. When his mother, Elsie Cowan, a nurse who was also an avid photographer, married Hardy Sweet, a mechanic, the family moved to New Russia, N.Y., in the Adirondacks. He returned to Stamford, where he finished high school and also worked as an assistant to Borglum, who had built a studio in the area.
Young Ozzie, however, also aspired to be an actor, and he moved to California, where he appeared as an extra in several movies, including “Reap the Wild Wind" (1942), a 19th-century adventure story, directed by DeMille, that starred John Wayne.
Shortly after the United States entered World War II, Sweet enlisted in the Army, where he became a photographer. He was stationed in San Diego, where he took his first Newsweek cover, a staged photograph of a GI in training, peering over a rock with a knife in his teeth.
Sweet remained in the Army until after the war was over and then went to work for Newsweek. It was the Feller photograph, in June 1947, that changed the path of his career. As the story goes, it was seen by the editor of Sport, who contacted him. When Sweet protested that he wasn’t a sports photographer, the editor replied that that’s exactly why they wanted him.
Sweet’s first marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, the former Diane Rocco, whom he married in 1974 and who confirmed his death, he is survived by two daughters, Pamela and Linnea Sweet; a son, Blair; and a grandson.
Sweet was nothing if not prolific. Beyond his magazine work, he took photographs for advertisements and packaging (his picture of a collie appeared on boxes of Milk Bone). He shot antique cars, puppies and kittens for calendars. And he provided the photographs for a series of wildlife books for children, including “City of Birds and Beasts," focusing on denizens of the Bronx Zoo.
Diana Sweet said her husband was “a real guy’s guy," and it showed in what she said were his most frequent subjects: “Sports, automobiles and women."
Perhaps that was true, but Sweet had a practical explanation for his interest in photographing these things — well, women, anyway. In an article for the magazine The Camera in 1948, he offered advice for the photographer who wanted to sell cover shots.
“Photographs of pretty girls occupy more cover space than any other type of subject," he wrote, adding: “Basically there are about four types of magazines which always use girl pictures for covers. These are the fashion, women’s, cheesecake and romance publications. On the other hand, farm journals, garden, medical, science, travel, sport, picture and news magazines invariably resort to a girl photograph if they can find a logical excuse. All art editors are fully aware of the pretty girl potential and honestly like to take full advantage of this natural popularity."