Did Nike Copy the Jordan Jumpman 40 Years Ago? This Photographer Still Thinks So

Co Rentmeester defends his place in Air Jordan history.

Jordan Jumpman Photo Lawsuit
The original Jordan photo in question (left) vs. the Nike version (right)
Jordan Jumpman Photo Lawsuit

Co Rentmeester can’t look at the Jumpman logo. The blacked-out silhouette of a floating Michael Jordan, which has adorned millions of pairs of Air Jordan sneakers for decades, still irritates him.

“I turn my eyes away,” Rentmeester says.

It’s an unnatural reaction for Rentmeester, a Dutch photographer who’s spent much of his life training his eyes, and lenses, on subjects no matter how challenging they may be. At Life magazine, he documented the Watts uprising in 1965 and embedded himself with troops in the Vietnam War. He’s huddled with snow monkeys in the mountains of Japan and followed polar bears across Canada’s tundra.

The 88-year-old Rentmeester, who was an Olympic rower before he found photojournalism, has seen it all. One thing he can’t bear to see anymore, though, is that logo.

“I cannot bounce back from it,” Rentmeester says. “I will never forget this.”

So, what happened with him and the Jumpman?

In 1984, Life commissioned Rentmeester for a photo essay on American Olympians for a special issue timed to that year’s Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. As part of the assignment, he traveled to the University of North Carolina’s campus in Chapel Hill that February to photograph a young Michael Jordan, who’d not yet played an NBA game nor signed a deal with Nike. Rentmeester instructed Jordan to leap through the air, his legs splayed out in the fashion of a ballet dancer.

After Rentmeester’s photo of Jordan was published across a two-page spread in Life that summer, Nike took note. Peter Moore, the Nike creative director responsible for the look of the Air Jordan line, paid Rentmeester $150 for two transparencies of the photo that August. Nike then created a similar image, its version showing Jordan jumping in nearly the same pose. From that photo it would derive the Jumpman logo, a sportswear symbol that is now globally recognizable and (no doubt to the chagrin of Rentmeester) nearly unavoidable.

Rentmeester never got credit for it. He would allege in a lawsuit decades later that Nike agreed to pay him $15,000 in March 1985 for limited use of his Jordan image for two years, the sneaker company relenting only after Rentmeester’s constant badgering and threats of litigation.

Rentmeester has intermittently fought for recognition for his role in making the image of Air Jordan since then. As he nears 90, there is still plenty of fight in him.

“I felt so strongly that the evidence that I had and my story was so solid that legally [Nike] couldn't get out of it,“ Rentmeester says.

Co Rentmeester Life Photographer

He will try again to tell his side of the story in Jumpman, a documentary short premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival on Friday. The doc is directed by Rentmeester’s son-in-law Tom Dey. It gives Rentmeester a platform that the 2015 lawsuit he brought against Nike didn’t. After an Oregon judge dismissed the case, Rentmeester felt he had more to say.

“One of the main reasons why I wanted to make the film,” Dey says, “was because when I found out he wasn't able to address the jury, I thought, well, maybe through a documentary he could kind of address the court of public opinion.”

Jumpman has Rentmeester speaking directly to the camera; he breaks when the topic of his lawsuit drums up too much emotion.

In the doc, he recalls in precise detail the events of the day he captured Jordan on film. Jordan’s time was precious even then, and he showed up hours late to the shoot, which Rentmeester staged at the crest of a campus hill fuzzy with grass.

For any ill will the photographer harbors over the image, he aims none of it at Jordan.

“He was amicable, friendly, cooperative, and very laid back,” Rentmeester says.

Original Jumpman Air Jordan photo from Life magazine 1984

The images of Jordan that Rentmeester made for Life are most significant for the logo they eventually inspired, but are also notable for the shoes Jordan wore: an obscure pair of all-white New Balances. It was an anomalous choice for Jordan, who wore Converse in college and became synonymous with Nike later in ‘84. (Designer Joe Freshgoods referenced Jordan’s brief time in New Balances with a limited edition New Balance drop last year.) Rentmeester doesn’t have any idea why Jordan wore the sneakers he did that day—he was preoccupied with choreographing Jordan’s grand jeté jump.

In what is either a coincidence or the manifestation of some latent influence, Rentmeester himself is a New Balance man these days. (Of course, he has never owned a pair of Air Jordans.) Earlier in life, he wore Adidas. And earlier, at Life, he remembers Adidas scion and exec Horst Dassler marching through the magazine’s New York offices to hassle employees about how the brand’s goods would appear in Life’s pages.

In Jumpman, Rentmeester recounts the exact moment when it struck him that Nike had used his work as a template for its own. On a trip to Chicago in late 1984, he was shocked to see a gigantic, highway-adjacent Nike billboard that showed Jordan mid jump, his legs kicked out at a familiar angle. As in Rentmeester’s photo, the right-handed Jordan was dunking with his left hand. It was, in Rentmeester’s eyes, a direct ripoff of his work.

Michael Jordan Jumpan Air Jordan Logo Pose

That was after Nike had paid the photographer for the use of his transparencies. After seeing the billboard, Rentmeester secured an extra $15,000 from Nike in exchange for a two-year license for his Jordan photo. Rentmeester says that one of the ways the sneaker company placated him was by promising him future work.

“But they never came back,” Rentmeester says. “And that was, of course, another big disappointment.”

The jobs that Rentmeester says Nike dangled in front of him never materialized. Moore stopped returning his calls.

“Now looking back, I just took some of their statements and promises, the verbal promises, naively,” Rentmeester says. “I must admit.”

If you know Air Jordan history you know about Co Rentmeester, the photographer who took the first Jumpman photo. "Jumpman," a short doc about Co, premieres today at the Tribeca Film Festival in NYC. pic.twitter.com/dhSYdJVPXY

— Complex Sneakers (@ComplexSneakers) June 7, 2024
Twitter: @ComplexSneakers

The photographer, working then as a freelancer, didn’t have the resources to pursue Nike. He had other priorities; he was a young father raising twin girls. And he had the fear that trying to chase Nike down would earn him the unwanted stigma of being overly litigious. Peers warned Rentmeester against making himself a martyr.

“If you take this on,” they told him, “it'll really maybe affect your work and getting work from other clients.”

Rentmeester moved on with his career, but the issue would rear back up. Years after the Jordan shoot, he ran into Chuck Kuhn, the photographer who took Nike’s Jumpman photo. Rentmeester confronted him when the two ran into each other in Nevada, where he was working on a Marlboro campaign.

“I ran into him in a motel somewhere,” Rentmeester remembers, “and I said, ‘Are you the guy that took his picture?’”

Kuhn confirmed it was him.

“Thanks a lot,” Rentmeester told him, turning around in the next second to walk away.

“I mean,” he says, “I couldn’t pop him in the face.”

Though his battle over the Jordan pose went dormant for years, the umbrage did not. Rentmeester was consumed.

Air Jordan 3 Tongue Jumpman Logo

“Those things really hurt me in those days,” says Rentmeester. “They were in my mind all the time. There was a lot of fury associated with that.”

Rentmeester thought he might settle his troubles with Nike in 2015, when he found a lawyer who was willing to file a lawsuit against the sneaker company on his behalf, pro bono. Rentmeester sued Nike in Oregon district court in January 2015, accusing the brand of copyright infringement and violating the digital millennium copyright act. Documents filed in the lawsuit included invoices from the ‘80s that Rentmeester sent to Nike for the limited use of his Jordan photo.

“Nike has obtained billions of dollars in revenue through its direct, contributory, and vicarious infringement of Mr. Rentmeester’s copyright,” his complaint read. “The infringing Jumpman logo has been an integral part of Nike’s marketing strategy from its introduction in 1987 to the present, and it has helped establish Nike as one of the largest global sports apparel brands.”

Co Rentmeester Michael Jordan Test Shot

The Jumpman photo lawsuit didn’t get far. After some back and forth, Judge Michael W. Mosman granted Nike’s motion to dismiss the complaint in June 2015. Judge Mosman wrote in his opinion that there was no “substantial similarity” between the original Rentmeester photo and Nike’s, and that the former’s work was only entitled to “thin protection.” In March 2019, the Supreme Court rejected Rentmeester’s appeal.

The process frustrated Rentmeester, who still feels incredulous.

“The whole legal establishment just looked bored,” he says. “They didn't want to deal with it.”

To him, the result felt personal. So much so that he’s willing to cast (totally speculative) aspersions on Nike co-founder Phil Knight (“I just see him sort of as the king of the whole situation”) and Judge Wosman (“I suspected—it was just suspected—that he may have had 10,000 shares of Nike or his daughter worked at Nike”). 

What did Rentmeester feel would have been adequate compensation for Nike appropriating his work? His lawsuit didn’t put forth a specific number, but he has an idea of a price now.

“I thought about a half a billion dollars,” Rentmeester says.

His current ask is more modest. For him, the project would be successful if the Jumpman documentary spurred a legal response that strengthens copyright laws to better protect artists.

Tom Dey Co Rentmeester

In the very unlikely event that Nike does reverse course and acknowledge his role in the Air Jordan logo, Rentmeester hopes that the brand would also make a donation on his behalf—$25 million to the United States Rowing Association and another $25 million to artist rights organizations.

Sans that kind of happy ending, can the photographer manage to be at peace? 

“Mostly yes,” Rentmeester says.

He insists that as long as the documentary at least gives him the chance to explain from his perspective what happened between him and Nike, he can be content.

“The public can react to it in their own degree of judgment,” Rentmeester says, “and that's really all that I'm asking for.”

For Dey, the documentary’s director, the goal was never to completely resolve the matter, but to help Rentmeester find gratitude as an antidote to his grievances. In this way, Jumpman might absolve the photographer of some rancor and bitterness.

“I knew that forgiveness is not on the table, and I was not expecting that from, nor wanting that from Co,” Dey says. “But I did want to provide some kind of relief.”

Even if the movie does not convince Nike to issue a delayed mea culpa, it might affect change in Dey’s household. He admits, to the shock of Rentmeester, that his teenagers have coveted Nikes. And he has provided them.

“They’re allowed to wear them,” Dey says.

“I didn’t know,” Rentmeester interjects, “I would have argued these situations.”

Now that he’s been enlisted in the battle over the Jordan logo, the director isn’t sure he can continue to procure Nike Air Force 1s and the like.

“After making the movie,” Dey says, “I can't buy any more of those.”