Sport camera

Valdez brings local sports to life through the lens of his camera

By Nate Thompson

MUSKEGON–If Leo Valdez could label his favorite style of photography, it would be something like “Crowd Pleasing”.

When shooting high school or college sports, the longtime Muskegon-area photographer prides himself on capturing the expressions in the stands – mostly smiles. He loves taking pictures of screaming student sections or anxious parents watching their children compete in track and field.

“I like taking pictures of the kids at the game and the parents,” he said. “And I like to share my photos with them (on social media). Whether it’s the parents or all the fans together, a whole group of them, I really like bringing a lot of people.

“Really, that’s sport – kids,” Valdez said. “Sometimes I get a picture of a mother smiling or they can be emotional after a game. I think it’s important for parents and children to have pictures because they can look back on those years later. That’s the whole story.”

Valdez, 66, knows a thing or two about being a spectator at sporting events. He saw his five children compete – and excel – in many sports during their play days at Whitehall High School. Valdez and his 46-year-old wife Rose were high school sweethearts in Whitehall and raised Leo Jr., Vanessa, Bambi, Anthony and Adrian together.

Valdez has been an institution for snapping local sports photos, including this photo used by the Muskegon Clippers on a billboard along US Business 31.

Valdez grew up in Shelby, but moved to Whitehall during her high school years. A local photographer who owned his own shop in town, sparked Valdez’s interest in crafts and he pursued it later in school, working first in the darkroom developing photos, then later submitting a large number of photos for the school yearbook.

“Between my junior and senior years, I started working at the Montague Observer,” he said. “At one point they gave me a whole streak, which for a kid my age was a big deal. But it was a lot of development work.

Valdez graduated from Muskegon Community College, then enlisted in the United States

States Army. He was first stationed at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, but also visited Korea and Fort Polk in Louisiana. Valdez said a highlight of his service was when he was handpicked to go to Germany for a goodwill mission.

“I went to Germany for almost 2 months,” he said. “I even stayed with the German soldiers. At one point the artillery units were holding a competition where we fired cannons and tried to hit designated targets. My group won the battalion competition, which was pretty good.

Upon completing his service in the Armed Forces, Valdez returned to photography in Muskegon, balancing his work at Howmet Aerospace, where he worked for 35 years.

He worked as a freelance sports photographer for the Muskegon Chronicle and also began photographing a number of wedding and senior photos. He also enjoys taking landscape photos, which are great to look at along Lake Michigan.

More recently, he was a longtime photographer for Local Sports Journal and has become a fixture on the sidelines at many gyms, fields, pitches and tracks around the Muskegon area.

He said he also enjoys working in much bigger locations, like filming the University of Michigan spring football game in Ann Arbor; Purdue University’s spring game and Ohio State football game in Columbus, Ohio, against Purdue, last November, where he took several photos of Buckeyes’ Cameron Martinez, a Muskegon graduate, and Jacob Wahlberg of the Boilermakers, a graduate of Mona Shores.

Veteran LSJ photographer Leo Valdez enjoys posing on a track podium following the conclusion of the West Michigan All-Star Track Invitational on May 25. “1st-Place Photographer” was Photoshopped into the photo to spruce up social media.

“When I was at the Big House this year (Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor), I met Spike Lee,” Valdez said of the famed director. “I told him it was a pleasure to be able to take a picture with him.”

Valdez said he’s always learning new tricks of the trade, but he said the key to success in sports photography is being reliable.

“To me, it’s not work,” he said. “It often takes a while to get to (the event), but time flies so fast when you’re shooting.”

Anticipation of the games developing in the blink of an eye and knowledge of the sport are also key traits, he said, and it helps that he grew up playing football, baseball, wrestling and at the race track. He also helped train his sons in wrestling.

“Every photo I take, I try to do my best to take it for the parents or the children,” he said. “I pray before I go out, because in the end, I serve for God.”

If you want proof that his hard work is paying off, one of his snaps is now even larger than life. A photo he took of the Muskegon Clippers promoting their upcoming season can be seen on a billboard in Muskegon.

“When I found out about this, it made me smile,” he said.