The year was 1947. Highland Park High School graduate Doak Walker was making a splash—a big one—on the SMU football team, and University Park’s James (Brad) Bradley was one of the lucky ones tasked to watch Walker’s legacy develop up close.
When Walker was barely scratching the surface of what would become a storybook path, Brad Bradley hadn’t been working in Dallas long and had only recently made photography his livelihood.
In those days, Bradley was fresh from WWII, having been discharged after serving in Army Air Corps supply. “Everything was fresh and energetic…,” Bradley said.
So when Bradley’s father-in-law, Jim Laughead, asked him if he wanted to help with the SMU yearbook contract Laughead had just signed, Bradley seized the opportunity. Laughead Photography set up shop at 6411 Hillcrest, just a glance away from SMU. Soon after, Doak Walker would become a favorite photo subject.
Walker, who went on to play professional football for the Detroit Lions, was voted All-Pro four times, and he helped lead the Lions to two National Football League championships. Although he was only 5'11" and 175 pounds, Walker led the NFL in scoring twice (1950 and 1955) and tallied 534 points in his career (330 on field goals and extra points). In honor of his achievements, the Lions have retired his #37. He is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In his field of vision, Brad Bradley went on to become a super star in his own right—and at age 90 (and a half), he’s still active 66 years later in the Park Cities and beyond, a photographer who is treated more like a celebrity than one he might photograph.
One of three children, the son of two cotton farmers, Bradley was a rarity for the time in which he was raised, being brought up during the Great Depression but having the opportunity to go on to college – North Texas Agricultural College, to study business – now the University of Texas at Arlington.
While living and working at the Fort Worth Army Air Field in 1943, Bradley met Betty Laughead, a student employee, and they married in June 1946. Little did he know, he said, that joining the Laughead family would result in a lifelong vocation. He had done some personnel photography in the Air Force, though nothing extensive. But his in-laws were experienced photojournalists.
Jim Laughead and his wife, Iris, were employed by The Associated Press when Betty was growing up, and Jim had studied photography at Ohio State. The Laugheads traveled all over the country taking pictures, even covering King Edward’s abdication in 1936, before being moved to the Dallas bureau of The AP, where they worked alongside journalists like Walter Cronkite and Felix McKnight, who later would become publisher of the defunct Dallas Times-Herald.
In no time, the male team of Bradley and Laughead would take the sports photography world by storm. That first SMU yearbook contract was just the beginning. Already active in the Park Cities, the Laughead-Bradley duo started working for Highland Park High School taking portraits of students and shooting campus activities.
And then there was Doak. Bradley describes taking shots of the Heisman winner and NFL legend and can recall minute details of his disposition. Sadly, Walker died in 1998, following a skiing accident.
From their connection at SMU, Bradley and his father-in-law began working for the University of Texas, Baylor, and TCU. Laughead Photography really started to take off when Bradley and Laughead began spending their springs traveling southeast in an old Station Wagon to take photos of every team in the Southeastern Conference, following a career-making contract at LSU.
In their glory days, the two men pioneered an innovative technique that would change the face of sports photography. The niche started like this: Bradley and Laughead would instruct their subjects to simulate movements on the field, and they would click away. What resulted was unprecedented views of the players—images of the athletes flying through the air or shot upward to make them appear twice their size.
As Bradley reminisced, he laughed, “It was fun. It was just a big bunch of fun.” Modestly, he mentions, in passing, the entire realm of photographic art he and his business partner established.
“We kind of pioneered a uniqueness in photographs of the stock action stuff. They called it the “huck and buck,” and what it was—we simulated a player in the game—he just didn’t have his helmet on,” Bradley said.
“You could see his features, and it was a really catchy thing that intrigued the entire country so far as football pictures and basketball was concerned.”
Soon the two photographers added Topps major league baseball cards to their list of clients.
Bradley said, “For several years in the 1960s, [Betty] and I would leave [Dallas] in February and go to Florida and spend two weeks taking pictures of people like Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and the St. Louis Cardinals.”
At one point in their almost-40-year run, the Laughead Photography duo was covering 44 colleges and various NFL teams including the Packers, Bears, and Eagles. The whole thing was a rush for Laughead and Bradley, made even more exhilarating during a time when color photography was just coming into its own. The ride continued every spring for years, until Laughead lost his wife in the 70s. After Jim remarried, he moved on, and Brad and Betty ran the business until 1990, when the couple sold Bradley Photography to their employees.
Today, Bradley lives in a plain but quaint older home, painted yellow—a standout among a subdivision of grand, modernly designed and perfectly-manicured University Park residences. He sits in a director’s chair in the living room of his unpretentious oasis, thoughtfully narrating career highlights and pausing like a jukebox between songs when required.
“Actually, I have a picture I can show you,” says Bradley, as he heads to the dining room, or the kitchen, or to shelves in his den where he’ll retrieve a shot from four decades ago that he describes in fresh detail, like it was yesterday.
Bradley’s son, Jimmy, lives with him now and still lends his father a helping hand with his photography. His wife, Betty, passed away in 2010.
Brad Bradley still works for HPISD, shooting portraits for 32 school-related organizations throughout the school year, including all the sports teams, as well as for SMU, most recently snapping the Doak Walker Award Banquet in mid-February. Bradley is at every Tate Lecture at SMU, camera in tow.
In between photo shoots, he attends Highland Park United Methodist Church on Sundays, and he is a lifetime member of the East Dallas Exchange Club.
When he thinks back on his life and career’s most pivotal moments, Bradley says his relationship with Doak Walker is “right up there at the top of the list.” Honorable mentions include his time covering Texas Governor Bill Clements’ campaign, photographing President Ronald Reagan with a handful of 1984 American Olympians, and of course, being the only photographer to be inducted to the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame.
“They’ve (the Cotton Bowl) used me for 66 years,” Bradley said. His name sits beside all the main players associated with the football tradition – athletes and coaches .
He brushes aside suggestions by some that he is a living legend. “I’m very flattered, but I don’t know what defines a legend,” he said. “I just enjoy being with people, and I am so very fortunate to have the friends and family that I have,” he said.
Bradley knows well he doesn’t have to keep doing what he’s doing, that most people his age have been settled into retirement for decades already. But there’s something that keeps pulling him back to his favorite vantage point – behind his camera.
“I just love people,” he said.
Photo of Doak Walker courtesy of SMU