‘Jumpman’: How the Tribeca Documentary Film Argues Jordan’s Famous Logo Was Stolen From a Photographer

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One of the most famous logos in the world has been a lesser-known source of contention before it even existed.

Jacobus “Co” Rentmeester, a Dutch photographer renowned for his work at “Life” magazine, has been in dispute with Nike since the ’80s after the first time he saw the company recreate his own photograph with an image of Michael Jordan appearing to fly through the air, legs extended wide and arms running almost perfectly diagonally as the fingers of his right hand are spread out near his knee and the ball cradled in his left hand well above his head.

Nike’s image was used for Jordan’s first campaign, and the silhouette of Jordan from it became the Jumpman logo that followed it on the Air Jordan line, a great deal more sneakers, items of apparel, and accessories that now includes the official gear of some of the world’s most famous professional and collegiate teams in basketball, football and soccer.

But before any of the marketing or products were made, Rentmeester shot a portrait of Jordan in a pose that’s largely the same, minus differences in the positioning of his right arm and the turn of his feet. Rentmeester maintains today that he didn’t give Nike permission to borrow from his work and wasn’t compensated fairly after the fact.

Air Jordan 3
The Jumpman logo on the heel of an Air Jordan 4 sneaker.

The documentary short “Jumpman” premieres Friday, June 7, at the Tribeca Film Festival and lays out the charge of intellectual property theft Rentmeester has levied against Nike first outside of the public eye nearly 40 years ago and in federal courts for three years beginning in 2015. It’s directed by his son-in-law, Tom Dey, whose credits include the aughts comedies “Failure to Launch,” “Showtime” and “Shanghai Noon.”

“I’ve been married to one of [Rentmeester’s] daughters for 20 years now, and I’ve probably heard this story since we were still dating. It’s become part of the family lore,” Dey told Footwear News on a phone call in the week leading up to the premiere and joined by Rentmeester. “A couple years ago, this started as a family project. I wanted to record the story for our own archives, but then very quickly I realized this could make a terrific documentary film.”

Rentmeester’s claim against Nike, which is based on a portrait of Jordan taken for a 1984 issue of Life on Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, was rejected in 2015 by a federal judge in Portland on that grounds that Jordan’s placement of limbs in Nike’s image was different enough to avoid being an “exact replica.” The U.S. appeals court upheld the decision in 2018, and the Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal a year later. Rentmeester had been seeking a share of the profits Nike and Jordan Brand have generated since 1987.

A scan of the two-page spread featuring Co Rentmeester’s photo of Michael Jordan in a 1984 issue of <em>Life </em>magazine.
A scan of the two-page spread featuring Co Rentmeester’s photo of Michael Jordan in a 1984 issue of Life magazine.

Nike hasn’t commented on the case publicly, but in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, lawyers argued, “Rentmeester falls far short of that standard here given the significant — and self-evident — differences in mood, lighting, setting, expression, color, style and overall look and feel of his photograph, on the one hand, and Nike’s photograph and logo on the other.”

If not the verdict itself, Rentmeester’s primary complaint is that it was made by a judge rather than a jury of his peers — which is why he chose to tell his story through the documentary. Although they may not have the power to overturn the case, the public will still be able to hear what the photographer has to say and render their own opinion.

“Closure will never come,” Rentmeester said. “Nike will not apologize, that is not going to happen. But really makes things a lot better is that people can see the movie and make up their own mind.”

Jumpman Documentary
Jacobus “Co” Rentmeester appears in a still from ‘Jumpman.’

“Jumpman” begins with a quick journey through Rentmeester’s life prior to the Jordan Life shoot, including his childhood in the Netherlands during World War II and his time competing as an Olympic rower. Upon moving to the United State in 1961 Rentmeester received a degree from the ArtCenter School of Design in Los Angeles and progressed as a freelancer to staff photographer for Life. His big break was his coverage of the Watts riots in 1965, which made the magazine’s cover, and he then made several trips to photograph the Vietnam War, resulting in an award for Photo of the Year in 1967 from the World Press Organization.

The crux of “Jumpman” is laying out how only Rentmeester could have captured the famous shot of Jordan in 1984. What we see isn’t a mere snapshot of Jordan in the midst of one of his trademark gravity-defying dunks, but rather a carefully staged portrait informed by the photographer’s past work with athletes, as well as the famous ballet dancer and choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov.

In order to land a clear picture, Rentmeester outlines in the film how he instructed Jordan how to leap straight into the air — not towards the hoop in the process of an actual dunk — with his left hand holding the ball above and the left extended behind so as not to obscure his frame.

Rentmeester’s recounting is played over a recreation of the shoot directed by Dey, putting the viewer in the moment that would eventually encapsulate the mystique and athletic prowess of Jordan in a single icon that millions of people across the world wear from head to toe.

“I was able to cast a guy who played college basketball, and he was the exact height of Jordan and probably a few pounds less,” Dey said. “But it’s really hard, it’s really difficult to do. Co was using really slow film and very strong strobes to create that still image. It’s one thing to shoot it on video, and we were able to shoot at a very high speed and slow everything down. But he had to get that razor sharp, and that’s a lot harder than what we did, so it gave me an appreciation for what Co had to go through.”

Air Jordan 1 Skyline
An Air Jordan 1 inspired by the background of the Jordan campaign that would eventually become the Jumpman logo.

After the Life shoot was published and Jordan had signed with Nike, the company reached out to Rentmeester, who maintained rights to the image, to ask if it could borrow duplicate color transparencies of his photographs for “slide presentation only.” Rentmeester was adamant that Nike not print any of the images, a request he said was agreed to by the brand in writing along with a $150 payment. A month later, Rentmeester flew into Chicago and saw a billboard with an image of Jordan too similar to bear.

“That gave me incredible shock. I couldn’t believe it,” Rentmeester said in the film. “They used it without my permission. It was like I was hit in the stomach. The concept, the whole thing — it was just factually mine. They just put the skyline of Chicago in there and a different uniform.”

When Rentmeester reached out again and threatened to hire an attorney, he said Nike offered a fee of $15,000 for using his image as inspiration for billboards and posters over the next two years and promised to hire him for future projects. Because Rentmeester had been working as a freelancer since Life stopped publishing weekly in 1972 had twin children to support, he accepted the deal rather than spending the money requisite of the legal efforts to gain more. Later work from Nike, he said, never came.

In 2014, Rentmeester found a pro bono lawyer to take up his case, but the judge ruled that ideas such as his couldn’t be granted copyright protection. In legal terms, photography was said to have “thin protections from infringement.” Because of the minute differences in the two photos, Rentmeester’s complaint was not upheld.

“I hope that this is going to be an example for other people that have creative conflicts with somebody stealing their art,” Rentmeester said. “The law should be far more aware of these things than is presently going on.”

After Tribeca, the plan is to continue to take “Jumpman” through the film festival circuit and look for the right platform to bring the documentary to a wider audience.

“There’s not a big market for short docs, so it’s not like we’re looking for a big sale or anything,” Dey said. “We’re just going to look for who’s going to curate it well in terms of where it goes and how it’s seen. And we hope, as Co said, that this is a cautionary tale. We hope it sparks conversations about authorship, appropriation and how we better protect art and artists moving forward.”

About the Author:

Ian Servantes is a Senior Trending News Editor for Footwear News specializing in sneaker coverage. He’s previously reported on streetwear and sneakers at Input and Highsnobiety after beginning his career on the pop culture beat. He subscribes to the idea that “ball is life” and doesn’t fuss over his kicks getting dirty.

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