By ELLIOT SPAGAT and BERNIE WILSON
SAN DIEGO (AP) — Leonard Ignelzi, whose knack for being in the right place at the right time produced breathtaking images of Hall of Fame sports figures, devastating wildfires and other major news over 37 years as photographer for The Associated Press in San Diego, has died. He was 74.
Ignelzi died Friday in Las Vegas from a brain condition that triggers frequent strokes, according to his wife, Bobbi.
Known as Lenny, he was a highly versatile photojournalist whose biggest passions were sports and breaking news. Few people, if any, have attended more Padres baseball or Chargers football games, yet he found fresh angles with each assignment until retiring in 2016.
Ignelzi hid in bushes during a gunman’s assault on a McDonald’s restaurant in San Diego that killed 21 people in 1984. His images of the U.S.-Mexico border showed San Diego’s transformation from dominant corridor for illegal crossings to fortress of razor-topped walls and stadium lights.
His indelible wildfire images include one of firefighters standing awestruck on a grassy plain in San Diego in 2003 as giant plumes filled the sky and advanced toward them. Ignelzi raced downhill to transmit from his car because phone towers in the area had been destroyed.
Some of his most memorable work was in sports: Tiger Woods’ tying putt in the 2008 U.S. Open that led to his epic win, Magic Johnson celebrating with the original “Dream Team” at the 1992 Summer Olympics and careers of the Padres’ Tony Gwynn and Trevor Hoffman and the Chargers’ Dan Fouts.
Deep knowledge, a tireless work ethic and fierce determination were ingredients of his success. Sally Buzbee, executive editor of The Washington Post, said Ignelzi “had the best gut news instincts of anyone I ever worked with.”
“He knew instantly what was important, how to chase it, how to get it, how to show it and tell it,” said Buzbee, who worked with Ignelzi as AP’s San Diego correspondent in the 1990s and was AP’s executive editor from 2017 to 2021. “And he was insanely, fabulously, over-the-top competitive. I learned a huge amount just watching him work, seeing how he attacked stories.”
J. David Ake, assistant managing editor and director of photography at the AP, echoed that sentiment. “More than just a natty-dressed, cigar-smoking, photographer extraordinaire, he was one heck of a newsperson. He knew his town, he knew the story, and he knew how to tell it with a camera,” Ake wrote to AP staff.
Ignelzi disliked that some of his best photos portrayed human suffering.
“Maybe that’s why sports is a good thing, in that it’s more positive,” Ignelzi said in a career retrospective on San Diego’s KPBS-TV in 2014. “I mean, one team loses but it’s sports. It’s not the end of the world.”
Ignelzi never hesitated to speak his mind, especially if someone or something got in the way of a photo he wanted. Despite a sometimes gruff exterior, he was known for generosity and kindness.
For decades, Ignelzi organized an annual golf tournament to raise money for people with disabilities, inspired by a friend whose daughter has Down syndrome. Hoffman, the former Padres closer who signed photographs for the charity auction, said Ignelzi always thought about others.
Ignelzi keenly anticipated what might happen on and off the field. He captured a scuffle near the players’ garage in 2013 after sensing a brawl during a game between the Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers might lead to a post-game confrontation.
Bruce Bochy, who played for the Padres and managed the team from 1995 to 2006, said Ignelzi was a good friend with deep baseball knowledge. Ignelzi taught him to play golf.
“He spent some time with me because he loved it and he was a good golfer. He finally told me, ‘I’m beginning to think you’re uncoachable,’” said Bochy, who managed the San Francisco Giants to three World Series titles.
Fouts, the Chargers’ quarterback during the Air Coryell era of the 1970s and 1980s, recalled flipping his middle finger at Ignelzi while stretching in practice because he felt his privacy was invaded. Rick Smith, the Chargers’ public relations boss at the time, hung Ignelzi’s picture of the moment in his office. Fouts and Ignelzi later laughed about it.
“The fact it was such a special time not just for us players but for our fans and the city, and to have it recorded and saved by such a great photographer, makes it special,” Fouts said.
Ignelzi is survived by his wife, Bobbi, whom he met when they worked together at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and sisters Lucy Whiting and Rosemary Thuet and their families. He was preceded in death by a brother, Joseph.