A renowned photographer claims Nike ‘snookered’ him out of the picture that would become the Air Jordan logo

In 1984 at a photoshoot for the U.S. Olympic team, basketball met ballet.

That's when a 21-year-old player from the University of North Carolina was asked to leap toward the basket, ball in hand and perform a grand jete—the classic ballet move where a dancer jumps and spreads their legs wide. That young man was Michael Jordan and his pose would go on to become the logo for the $6 billion brand that, to this day, bears his name.

In a new short documentary titled Jumpman that premiered at the Tribeca film festival, the photographer who took that picture, Jacobus “Co” Rentmeester, alleges his work was copied to create the famous logo.

“There is a certain brutality by major corporations,” Rentmeester told Fortune. “They just acquire what they think they need—that's fine—but then they don't want to accept the sharing of the creative process. They just want to take it and drop the rest in the garbage.”

Tom Dey, the director of the movie and Rentmeester’s son-in-law, said the picture of Jordan “wildly succeeded in his goal, which is that it will never be forgotten, but it exacted a great personal price” on Rentmeester, who is now 88. “So there's great irony in that for me.”

Nike did not respond to a request for comment.

Companies often take great care in safeguarding their logos, which are among the most critical pieces of branding and become shortcuts for millions (if not billions) of consumers worldwide. No longer just a sketch meant to draw a shopper’s wandering eye in a store, a logo is now a representation of a brand’s values, its ability to connect with people. It should, in theory, represent something.

However, that level of visibility also makes them prime candidates for the legal battles—either between companies complaining their logos are too similar or from a designer claiming they were ripped off. Several famous logos have been alleged to have been replicated from other companies that preceded them, usually inadvertently. While other times creators for hire, like Rentmeester, feel they haven’t got their fair share.

a renowned photographer claims nike ‘snookered’ him out of the picture that would become the air jordan logo

Michael Jordan jumping through the air

Photographing Michael Jordan, a ‘man without gravity’

In Rentmeester’s case, the photo he originally took was commissioned by Life magazine, a publication known for working with renowned photographers like Robert Capa and Margaret Bourke-White. An elite athlete himself, Rentmeester represented his native Holland as a rower at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, before becoming a photographer. Over his career, Rentmeester photographed the Vietnam War, the 1972 Olympics, and the Watts Riots, with some of his work appearing in Fortune when it was still owned by Time Inc.

For the Jordan assignment, Life wanted something slightly unusual. “I was asked to do a photo essay of athletes in outstanding situations,” Rentmeester told Adweek, describing his assignment.

Instead of putting Jordan on a basketball court, Rentmeester decided to photograph him outdoors, against the backdrop of a clear, blue sky with his arms and legs splayed out. The idea was to capture Jordan’s athleticism as if it were flight. “A person in the air without gravity in the frame,” he recalled.

That picture, Rentmeester said, was then used as the basis for a later photoshoot commissioned by Nike and shot by photographer Chuck Kuhn. In Kuhn’s photograph, Jordan is seen in a similar pose over the Chicago city skyline vaulting toward an outdoor basketball hoop with an aluminum backboard and metal netting. Notably, in this version Jordan is wearing Nike sneakers rather than the New Balance ones he wore in Rentmeester’s picture.

Years later, in the late 1980s when Rentmeester was on assignment for Marlboro scouting locations in Painted Desert, Nevada, he crossed paths with Kuhn when the two happened to be staying in the same motel.

Nike 'had snookered me’

The culprits, Rentmeester and Dey claim, were the Nike art directors who reneged on a promise to credit him for his work. An ad agency working for Nike had reached out to Rentmeester for a print of his photograph. He agreed to send over copies of his work in exchange for $150 and an agreement his work wouldn’t be copied or duplicated, according to correspondence viewed by Fortune. “They ignored that obviously,” Rentmeester said.

Two weeks later, while taking a cab from Chicago’s O’Hare airport to the offices of ad agency Leo Burnett, Rentmeester saw a billboard with a strikingly similar image: a balletic Jordan spread-eagle, soaring toward a basketball hoop.

Upon realizing this, Rentmeester threatened to sue Nike. “In my mind, it was completely a fraud case,” Rentmeester said. “They had snookered me.”

He eventually backed down. In March 1985, Rentmeester instead accepted $15,000 for a two-year license to use his picture in North America, according to an invoice viewed by Fortune. That agreement was never renewed after it expired 37 years ago, Dey wrote in an email. “They kept using it all these years without coming back to me,” Rentmeester said.

In 2015, Rentmeester made good on his threat of legal action, suing Nike in federal court in Oregon, where the company is based. But that lawsuit left Rentmeester without the credit he had hoped for. The judge in the case didn’t grant him the jury trial Rentmeester sought, ruling the two photographs were different enough as to have been separate works. Rentmeester eventually appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which declined to reopen it, upholding a ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court.

“I felt very restricted because as a single individual taking on the law firms that Nike could produce, there seemed like very little chance that I would go far,” Rentmeester said. “They simply ignored me because they felt they were powerful enough to just throw me under the bus in a certain way.”

Companies have been accused of copying logos before

Nike’s Air Jordan logo is hardly the first corporate logo to become embroiled in allegations of copying.

In 2014, Airbnb found that its triangular shaped logo was virtually identical to that of software company Automation Anywhere. At the time, Airbnb said it was a coincidence the two were so similar. Eventually Automation Anywhere changed its logo, while Airbnb kept the one it still uses today.

Air Jordan’s parent company, Nike, had its famed swoosh logo designed by a college student in 1971. Carolyn Davidson, a design student at Portland State University, was asked by Nike founder Phil Knight (who at the time was teaching accounting at the university) if she’d be willing to do some graphic design for his then-fledgling shoe company, she told ABC News in 2016. Eventually Knight picked the swoosh, which “he didn’t love,” according to Davidson. For her work, Davidson charged Knight $35. He would later gift her some Nike stock and a swoosh-shaped ring.

Davidson though is sanguine about the role she played in designing what would become one of the most recognizable logos in the world.  “While I'm proud of what I did, in some way I see it as just another design,” she told ABC. “It was Phil and the employees at Nike that turned the business into what it was. If they didn't have the savvy, it would have been just another drawing.“

Rentmeester, who was aware of Davidson’s story, said he was never shown that sort of good faith from Nike. If he had been, then perhaps the years of animosity and lingering sense of injustice may have been avoided.

“The irony is that had they just hired him to retake his picture none of this would have happened,” Dey said.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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