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Ozzie Sweet, 94; took a painter’s approach to historic photos

Ozzie Sweet called his work photographic illustrations. His subjects ranged from children to soldiers to celebrities.

2005 file

Ozzie Sweet called his work photographic illustrations. His subjects ranged from children to soldiers to celebrities.

Ozzie Sweet approached photography as if he were a painter, composing shots so carefully that each picture was more a completed canvas than a random candid moment.

Taking inspiration from Norman Rockwell, Mr. Sweet created images of top athletes and movie stars, politicians and children. Beginning with a photo of a soldier that appeared on the cover of Newsweek during World War II, his work captured the heroic Americana quality many saw in Rockwell’s paintings.

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Calling himself a photographic illustrator, Mr. Sweet left no detail to chance. While staging a shot of Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers sliding, Mr. Sweet told an assistant to throw ashes at the second-baseman’s feet to add heft to the kicked-up dirt. The preparation for a photo of two children at a water fountain on a Florida beach was even more elaborate.

“You can think of the beach, water, and sky as the blank canvas, the setting,” Mr. Sweet told the Globe in 1998. “You find a good-looking water fountain, talk to the city of St. Petersburg, ask them to bring it out to the beach, secure it on a big board so there is no danger of it falling on the kids, then bring a hose out to be buried under the sand. Cast the kids right, then you may have to wait days for the right weather.”

Mr. Sweet, whose work appeared on about 1,800 magazine covers ranging from Newsweek and Sport to Boy’s Life and Argosy, died Feb. 20 in his York Harbor, Maine, home. He was 94 and his health had been declining.

“He was the kindest person I ever met and he had a naturally sunny disposition,” said his wife, Diane. “I think so much of what he saw and what he wanted to create with photography was colored by his personality: So many of his images impart a feeling of upbeat optimistic happiness. I remember him saying that’s a hard thing to do, to impart a feeling from an image you produce. He said that if he could do that with one or two images a year, he felt he was doing a good job.

“He was a humble guy to boot.”

Personality played a key role in his success. In the introduction for Mr. Sweet’s 1993 book, “Legends of the Field,” which gathered many of his best sports photos, Ed Fitzgerald recalled the photographer’s unassuming good nature.

“What it came down to was that he liked people and people liked him,” wrote Fitzgerald, who was editor-in-chief of Sport magazine in the 1940s and ’50s. “That’s a priceless asset for a professional photographer who makes a living asking busy people to let him take pictures of them.”

Ted Williams, for example, was reluctant to pose, but Mr. Sweet persisted. In the resulting photo, smile wrinkles crinkle around the Red Sox slugger’s eyes. Beneath a boyish smile his bat is tucked so close that his chin brushes against his knuckles.

“I always wanted to get the tool of the trade in there,” Mr. Sweet told the Globe in 1993. “And it was nice to work his hands in there, too. You’d focus on what was important.”

Born Oscar Cowan Corbo in Stamford, Conn., Mr. Sweet took his stepfather’s last name when his parents divorced and his mother remarried. He grew up in the Adirondack Mountain region of New York, and after high school studied with sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who created the presidents’ heads on Mount Rushmore.

Heading to Los Angeles, Mr. Sweet acted in a Cecil B. DeMille movie and joined the Army during World War II. While serving as a photographer, he shot what became his first cover photo, a soldier with a knife in his teeth, which Newsweek published in 1942.

While working for Newsweek after the war, Mr. Sweet shot a photo of Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller that caught the eye of Fitzgerald, who called to ask Mr. Sweet to shoot photos for Sport magazine.

“But I don’t know anything about sports,” Mr. Sweet said.

“That doesn’t matter,” Fitzgerald replied, recounting the exchange later in the book introduction. “You know how to take pictures of people, and that’s what we want.”

During the next few decades, it seemed as if Mr. Sweet photographed everyone for every kind of magazine. Major League baseball players were a specialty, particularly Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees, who became the subject of a book Mr. Sweet published with the writer Larry Canale.

Mr. Sweet’s portraits included the actress Ingrid Bergman, a laughing Albert Einstein, Grace Kelly before she became Princess Grace of Monaco, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, TV host Arthur Godfrey, and Bob Hope holding a teacup.

“Ozzie combined technical skill with creative virtuosity, but his true talent, the spark that fired his genius, was his buoyant personality,” Fitzgerald wrote. “Like Will Rogers, Ozzie never met a man he didn’t like, or a woman either, and he could charm the birds out of the trees.”

Mr. Sweet photographed New England women for Playboy, Eskimos in Alaska for National Geographic, and Ernest Hemingway for Cat Fancy.

“See, he had to have company when he was writing,” Mr. Sweet told the Globe in 2005. “Dogs were too demanding, so he had cats. My assignment was to photograph him with his 30 cats, all descendants of a single cat.”

Mr. Sweet’s first marriage ended in divorce. He married Diane Rocco in 1974 after meeting her in Florida. One of her neighbors was a photo director and asked her to sit on a bicycle as an extra in one of Mr. Sweet’s photos.

“Ozzie worked all the time,” she said. “He loved to take pictures, and he had a happy life because of that.”

She added that “he always was so grateful to be able to do what he did. He saw things differently than the average person. It was always a joy to go to museums with him because he would make comments about art that we were looking at and reveal something that I never would have seen with my own eyes.”

A service has been held for Mr. Sweet, who in addition to his wife leaves two daughters, Linnea of San Francisco and Pamela of Newport, R.I.; a son, Anthony of Hong Kong; and a grandchild.

“Ozzie is an artist, but he uses a camera instead of brush and paint,” Canale told the Globe in 2005. “He creates scenes, and nobody has been better at it.”

For Mr. Sweet, who also published photographs in the Globe, the artistry could be found in the hours he spent preparing for that brief moment when the shutter clicked.

“Many people have said to me, ‘You don’t take pictures, you make them,’ ” he told the Globe in 1998, “and that’s really what photographic illustration is.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.
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