As a Northside High School student, Scott Cunningham used to take photos at Virginia Tech and Roanoke Valley Rebels games.
After moving to Atlanta, he turned his attention to pro sports. He has shot NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball and NHL games during his lengthy career.
“I love being around the game,” Cunningham, 61, said in a phone interview from his suburban Atlanta home. “Hockey and baseball are my favorites, so anytime I could shoot those games, it wasn’t work. It was complete bliss.
“You grow up in Roanoke and you grow up on the Rebels and Salem Pirates and you come down here, you feel like you fell into fantasy land.”
He has worked for a number of pro teams and leagues, as well as for Sports Illustrated, the Associated Press and the Getty Images photo service.
“Whether it was baseball or football or basketball, he just had a great eye,” said Charlie Dayton, who was Cunningham’s boss with the Atlanta Falcons, Washington Redskins and Carolina Panthers. “He reached the top of his profession. He was one of the best in the country.”
Cunningham has worked for the Atlanta Hawks for more than 40 years. He was shooting games for both the Hawks and the NBA when the season came to a sudden halt because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Cunningham tested positive for COVID-19 last month.
He has recovered, but he is not sure when or if he and his camera will be back at a sporting event.
“I don’t want to say I’m retired from photography, but I think I am,” he said. “I feel like I’ve done all I wanted to do.”
‘So much fun’
As a Northside student, Cunningham got his start in sports photography when he got a “mercy credential” from Virginia Tech.
He later worked as a photo intern for The Roanoke Times. He also spent a season working for the Roanoke Valley Rebels, a former minor-league hockey team.
Three months after graduating from Northside in 1977, Cunningham moved to Atlanta to attend The Art Institute of Atlanta. He began working for the Hawks that fall.
“I was barely getting my expenses back, but they were giving me something,” he said.
“He became very good very quickly,” Dayton said.
Cunningham left school after three quarters to devote himself to sports photography.
“I carved a little niche down here,” he said. “It gets in your blood. You get a picture published and then you want to do better than that.
“It was a blast for so long. It was just so much fun.”
He shoots the Hawks’ home games, as well as several of the team’s road trips each year.
“You’re a sitting duck down there by the basket,” he said. “I had a concussion three seasons ago.”
For Sports Illustrated, he got to shoot the Hawks on their 1988 visit to Russia for exhibition games against the Russian Olympic team. It was his favorite assignment of his career.
His decades with the Hawks were saluted in a 2017 museum exhibit in Atlanta entitled “From the Baseline: 40 Years Beneath the Rim.”
He has also worked for NBA Entertainment since 1994, shooting other NBA teams’ games when he wasn’t at a Hawks game. He shot a lot of Chicago Bulls games during the championship era of Michael Jordan and the Bulls.
“You knew the eyes of the sports world were on you, so you felt privileged,” he said of shooting the Bulls.
Cunningham was a contributing photographer for Sports Illustrated from 1986 to 1994, and continued to work for the magazine from time to time since then. He has had four cover photos.
For many years, Cunningham spent his Sundays working for NFL teams.
He served as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ photographer in 1979, then worked for the Falcons from 1980 to 1987. He worked for Washington from 1988 to 1994 and for Carolina from 1995 to 1999. He also worked for the NFL, shooting other teams’ games when he was free.
After hiring Cunningham while serving as the Falcons’ public relations director, Dayton brought Cunningham along with him when Dayton served as Washington’s communications vice president and as Carolina’s communications director.
“He had the eye for the great shot,” Dayton said. “It was probably instinctive. He had great anticipation of when to shoot.”
Cunningham began shooting NFL games for Getty Images in 2003.
He has shot about 20 Super Bowls for the NFL. He shot the February 2019 Super Bowl for Getty, but that was the last time he shot an NFL game.
“My body was starting to break down,” he said. “I’ve got a bad shoulder. I’ve got a bad hip.”
Cunningham has also shot the Atlanta Braves’ home games for Getty.
Two years ago, he was struck in the face by a foul ball while shooting a Braves game from the photo well on the first-base line.
“It killed a nerve,” he said.
He was the photographer for the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers from 1999 until they left the city in 2011.
Cunningham, whose family moved from Martinsville to Roanoke County when he was 8 years old, also has shot some NASCAR races.
He followed Richard Petty around at races in 1987 for a photo book. The following year he did the same with the late Dale Earnhardt Sr., and did a photo book about him after Earnhardt died.
Earnhardt was at the wheel when he and Cunningham once drove to a California airport.
“We drove through these mountains at about 100 mph,” he said. “I don’t know how I lived through that one.”
Cunningham tested positive for COVID-19 on May 21.
“Probably three or four days where I was uncomfortable. … Shortness of breath I think was the worst part of it,” he said. “One day I had chills really bad.”
He returned to work earlier this month. Working for Getty Images, he shot the fire that was set at the Wendy’s restaurant in Atlanta in the wake of the killing of Rayshard Brooks.
Cunningham has now turned his attention to showcasing his old work. He plans to put out some e-books in the coming years.
He wants to do one on the 1991 Redskins, who capped that season by winning the Super Bowl in January 1992. He was the team’s photographer that season, so he shot all the games and also had locker-room access.
“When they won the Super Bowl, it was probably the greatest day in my life,” he said.
He also wants to do an e-book on former Hawks star Dominique Wilkins.
Wilkins and Jordan were Cunningham’s favorite athletes to shoot.
“They were electrifying,” he said. “They could jump out of the gym.”
Cunningham and Wilkins became close. Cunningham accompanied Wilkins and Wilkins’ family on their charter bus trip to Wilkins’ 2006 induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Massachusetts.
Cunningham, who used to umpire Little League baseball games in Roanoke County, also wants to do an e-book about referees and umpires.
He might even do an e-book one day on the Roanoke Valley Rebels.
But he said his body is telling him it might be time to stop shooting sporting events.
“It tells you how long you want to sit on the floor,” he said.
Even if Cunningham does not shoot another game, he has made his mark as a sports photographer.
“That’s all I was put here to do,” he said.