The Story of How Top Photographers Posed for Baseball Cards in 1974

In the mid-1970s, 134 of the top photographers and curators in the world of photography posed for an unusual set of baseball cards that now sell for thousands of dollars as a complete set. The SF Museum of Modern Art just released this 4-minute video in which photographer Mike Mandel shares the story of how these cards came to be.

When Mandel was studying photography in the early 1970s, photographers didn’t receive much attention compared to artists working in other mediums, but things were starting to change. As a baseball fan, Mandel decided to poke fun at the fact that photographers were starting to receive recognition by creating a series of baseball cards of famous photographers.

In 1974, Mandel spent $1,700 in savings traveling 14,000 miles across the United States to visit photographers. One of the renowned photographers who was enthusiastic about the concept was Imogen Cunningham.

The Imogen Cunningham baseball card. Photo by Mike Mandel.

Mandel was then able to get Ansel Adams onboard by sending him the portrait he had taken of Cunningham. After waiting three months to book a shoot with Adams, Mandel was humiliated to find that his portraits of Adams were all completely underexposed. Mandel waited three more months for a second shoot, which finally produced a good portrait for a card.

The Ansel Adams baseball card. Photo by Mike Mandel.

After shooting portraits of them and collecting “stats” and quotes, Mandel self-published 3,000 copies of each card.

Those cards were packaged in sets of 10 with sticks of bubble gum donated by Topps and sold for $1 in museums and art galleries. Take a look at eBay these days, and the original cards will cost you a pretty penny. Individual cards sell for tens of dollars and full sets are being offered for over $3,000.

In 2015, Mandel re-released the card collection in new boxed collections called Good 70s with 10-card packs packaged with other items.

The cards are “part of the history of photography,” Mandel says. “It’s really quite humbling that any project that you do still has some significance to people […]”

(via SFMoMA via ISO 1200)