The Man Behind the Camera: Vernon Biever
This article first appeared in the Wisconsin Magazine of History, and is reprinted here by kind permission.
St. Norbert alumnus Vern Biever [Class of 1948] lived an enviable life. He created a job for himself that combined his lifelong passions of photography and football, leading to a sixty-year career as the official photographer of the Green Bay Packers. His credits include some of the most famous images of the Packers franchise and the National Football League.
Vernon Joseph Biever was born on May 21, 1923, in Port Washington, Wisconsin.1 At age sixteen, he joined a camera club sponsored by Port Washington High School and immediately excelled. The pictures he took as a teenager made it into the Port Washington High School Annual and even ran in the local newspaper, the Ozaukee Press.2 Biever’s other passion was football. He played end and center, and lettered for his high school team. Although his football career ended in high school, his love of the game remained.
After graduating in 1941, Biever enrolled at St. Norbert, but before he left, he made an audacious move. Without an appointment, Biever walked into the office of Stoney McGlynn – the sports editor of the Milwaukee Sentinel – and told him he could take pictures of Green Bay Packer games for the newspaper.3 He figured the worst thing that could happen would be for McGlynn to say “no.”4
McGlynn, who saw Biever’s ambition as well as an opportunity to save money by using someone local, agreed to give him an assignment to cover the Packers at City Stadium in Green Bay.
The fact that a major newspaper gave a freelance job to an eighteen year old was even more surprising in the context of the times. In 1941, photographers rarely covered sports for newspapers and magazines, especially professional football. The main descriptions of sporting events were covered by writers, whose copy seemed to tell more of a story than a series of photos could.5
In 1942, Biever’s college studies and sports photography career were put on hold. Like many young men at the time, Biever enlisted in the armed forces during World War II. He was named division photographer for the U.S. Army’s 100th Infantry. He photographed famous military figures such as General Dwight Eisenhower and General Lucius Clay, and entertainers who were in Europe entertaining the troops like Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Ingrid Bergman, and Marlene Dietrich.6 Biever was even awarded the Bronze Star for improving troop morale with his photography.
After his discharge in 1946, Biever returned to St. Norbert to finish the final two years of a business administration degree. While his return to civilian life meant he could resume his photography of Packer games, during the war the Milwaukee Sentinel joined forces with the Associated Press and United Press International to charter a plane to Green Bay to photograph the games, essentially eliminating the position Biever created with the newspaper.7
He did not give up, though, and instead approached the Packers organization directly. In exchange for a field pass, Biever offered to take photos of the team for free. Luckily, the publicity director of the Packers at the time, Francis “Jug” Earp, former center for the 1929-1931 championship Packer teams, knew of Biever’s work and was interested.8 And so Biever became what he believed to be the first NFL team photographer.
Photographing NFL action in the 1940s was not as simple as it is today. Because photographers had to pre-focus their lenses, it forced them to stalk the sidelines and guess where the action was going to be.9 Although it was more difficult to take pictures in the early days of Biever’s career, it made him a better photographer. “It taught you to be aware,” Biever said. “You would follow the game very intensely.”10
Besides having to follow the action so closely, shutter speeds in cameras like the speed graphic camera Biever used were much slower, which made it difficult to take action shots without a blur. In all, photographers like Vern could only take six to eight good photos per game.11 Successful sports photography depends on familiarity with the subjects and anticipation of the action, two traits he developed in his early years with the Packers.12
Photographing football action in the 1940s and 1950s was so intensive that many photographers needed assistants. Biever didn’t go far to find an aide. His father, Emil Biever, took notes on the players who appeared in the photos and the yards either gained or lost during the play.13 His dad was a natural choice for an assistant because the two worked together throughout the week in the Biever Ben Franklin store in Port Washington. A passage about Vern Biever in St. Norbert’s quarterly alumni newsletter sums up this balance in his life: “For 6 days a week each fall, Vernon J. Biever is one of Port Washington’s leading dime store clerks. On the 7th day he is one of the country’s leading football photographers.”14
While football photography was not easy in the 1940s, it did have its benefits. Biever photographed the majority of great players and coaches throughout Packer history. Starting in the early 1940s, he photographed such Pro Football Hall of Famers as Curly Lambeau, Clarke Hinkle, Don Hutson, and Tony Canadeo.
Ultimately, Biever’s legacy was established with his work during the Vince Lombardi era. From 1959 to 1967, the Green Bay Packers won five world championships and had twelve future Pro Football Hall of Famers.15 Biever’s photos of Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Willie Davis, Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke, Jerry Kramer, Willie Wood, Forrest Gregg and others would be publicized widely for decades.
While his photos became well known, Biever’s working conditions for the Packers in the 1960s were not ideal. In order to take photos, he had to sneak around the sidelines and capture images from afar. One of the qualities that made Vince Lombardi a great coach was his tight control of every facet of the Packers organization. Whether it was the practice schedule, player curfew, preparation of the playing field, or team travel, Lombardi made sure he was the ultimate authority. Biever also fell under this control.
According to Biever, Lombardi disliked having his picture taken, and by all accounts saw him as a bit of a nuisance. Some of his best-known photos from the era were shot from far away or without Lombardi’s knowledge.16 Even though Lombardi sometimes looked at him with ire, Biever—like so many others around the team in those days—was captivated by Lombardi’s presence and authority. In his Port Washington office, among family photographs and others inscribed by Packer greats, hung a framed, typewritten, thank you note from Vince Lombardi. While the note simply thanks Biever for sending some photos he took of Lombardi at a golf outing, the framing and prominent display shows how highly Biever valued receiving a simple message of gratitude from the fiery coach.
Additionally, Biever was still not being paid by the Packers in the early 1960s and used his own money to finance travel costs to away games. He made photographing the team profitable by selling his photos to publications. A letter to Chuck Lane, the Packers’ public relations director in 1966, sums up his situation at the time. “When you do get requests for material I might have, I would appreciate your referring these people to me,” Biever wrote. “This hobby is so interesting I would do all of it at a loss.”17
One of the more curious aspects of Vern’s popular photos from the 1960s is the mood of his subjects. Although the Green Bay Packers of this era were the most successful NFL team of any decade, winning five world championships in only seven seasons, many of Vern’s most beloved photos show team members looking dejected, worn out, and beaten up. These images, in particular, show the brutality of football and the emotional toll championship expectations took on players.
Biever soon capitalized on the photos he took in the 1960s. Countless books, articles, magazines, and television specials focused on the team, making them the most-revered dynasty in the history of football. Besides the endless publications, people from around the country—especially in Wisconsin—wanted photos for their personal collections. Biever’s personal papers include numerous letters from people requesting Packer photos from the 1960s.18 These letters only represent a few years of correspondence in the 1970s, so we can only imagine how many photos he reproduced to fill fans’ requests.”19
Although he was no longer photographing a storied dynasty in the 1970s and 1980s, his photos remained excellent, earning Biever the NFL Photographer of the Year award from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1984.20 He also spent valuable time with two new assistants, son John, who is now a photographer for Sports Illustrated, and son Jim, who is the Packers’ current team photographer. Both helped Vern develop film in the darkroom located in the family’s Port Washington home, and both learned from their dad how to successfully capture powerful moments in football.
During Biever’s later years, he received recognition for his distinguished career, including acknowledgement as a member of a special club. He had photographed the first thirty-five Super Bowls, earning membership in the “Super Bowl Club” created by the NFL for members of the media and the league who attended every Super Bowl.21 In 1994, Biever received a distinguished alumni award from St. Norbert, a proud moment for a man who treasured his education from the institution. In 2002, he was inducted into the Green Bay Packer Hall of Fame as a contributor to the franchise.22 Former Packers quarterback and coach Bart Starr nominated and then inducted him claiming “you wouldn’t have a Packer Hall of Fame without Vern Biever.”23
Following the 2007 season, Vern hung up his camera bag. Throughout more than sixty years of covering football, he witnessed six Packer world championship teams, numerous Pro Football Hall of Famers, and games including the “Ice Bowl.”24 Each day, Lambeau Field visitors see his work displayed throughout the Green Bay Packer Hall of Fame and Lambeau Field Atrium. Biever passed away in October of 2010, but his photos live on, preserving the emotion, heart, and action that is quintessentially Packers football.
1Ozaukee Press (Ozaukee, Wisconsin), October 20, October 2010.
2Ozaukee Press, October 14, 1959.
3Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, December 29, 2002.
4Ozaukee Press, October 20, 2010.
5Zimmerman, John, Mark Kauffman, and Neil Leifer, Photographing Sports: Capturing the Excitement of People in Action, (Los Angeles: Alskog, Inc., 1975), 21.
6Ozaukee Press, October 14, 1959.
7Biever, Vernon and Peter Strupp, ed., The Glory of Titletown: The Classic Green Bay Packers Photography of Vernon Biever (New York: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2003), 5.
8Ibid. Also, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 14, 2010.
9Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, December 29, 2002.
11Ibid. It would not be until the mass production of motor drives when Vern Biever and other photographers could take numerous pictures without a blur in a game. Motor drives fire the shutter, advance the film and cock the shutter again, allowing a photographer to shoot a rapid sequence of photos.
12Zimmerman, John, Mark Kauffman, and Neil Leifer, Photographing Sports: Capturing the Excitement of People in Action (Los Angeles: Alskog, Inc., 1975), 74.
13Ozaukee Press, October 14, 1959.
14Personal Papers of Vernon J. Biever, private collection, Port Washington, Wisconsin.
15The twelve include Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Forrest Gregg, Jim Ringo, Willie Davis, Henry Jordan, Ray Nitschke, Dave Robinson, Herb Adderley, Willie Wood, and Emlen Tunnell.
16Maraniss, When Pride Still Mattered (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999), 388.
17Vernon J. Biever to Chuck Lane, September 12, 1966, Personal Papers of Vernon J. Biever, private collection, Port Washington, Wisconsin.
19Biever and Strupp, ed., The Glory of Titletown, 133.
21Personal Papers of Vernon J. Biever, private collection, Port Washington, Wisconsin. Not all the men listed attended all thirty-five as Biever did. Pete Rozelle passed away prior to Super Bowl XXXI.
22Personal Papers of Vernon J. Biever, private collection, Port Washington, Wisconsin.
23Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 14, 2010.
March 31, 2014