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For veteran photographer Jeffery A. Salter, the first issue when it came to shooting the “Process This” Sixers cover in 2019 was getting to his rental car. When asked about that photo shoot, Salter initially remembers landing in Philadelphia late at night in freezing rain, only for the airport shuttle not to be running—which meant Salter alone had to hail a taxi, then lug six boxes of equipment over a half mile to finally get to his car.
Once at the Sixers’ practice facility, Salter would have to jump through a couple of more hoops. The first was endearing then-Philly star Jimmy Butler to his vision of the shoot. Philly’s starting five would be standing on a raised platform while Salter laid on the ground with everyone looking into the camera to create the towering effect present on the cover. Butler wasn’t sold until he got on the ground with Salter’s camera and took a few photos himself. (The image of Butler photographing Salter would even make it into the magazine.)
“He couldn’t understand what I was doing,” Salter recalls. “He laid on his back, he got down low, and I got in the middle. He just smiled and laughed. He was like, ‘Oh, this is cool!’ He was kind of blown away by it."
Butler’s approval was a turning point, according to Salter, because once he lent the idea his approval, his excitement brought up the mood in the room.
And while the cover reflected the Sixers’ starting five at the time—Butler, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick—only four showed up for the initial shoot. Embiid wasn’t present with everyone else. Embiid was ultimately photographed alone an hour later than the rest of his teammates.
“The editor was calling me, saying [Embiid] was going to be coming in a little later,” Salter says. “I just got the impression there may have been some locker room mess going on. I got the feeling there was something going on between him and the other players.” (That summer, Butler and Redick weren’t retained as Philly shook up its roster.)
When Embiid did show up, Salter wanted to make sure the man standing front and center had a properly intimidating look. To capture Embiid’s icy stare, Salter threw out phrases such as “mean mug,” “victorious” or “power” to help draw out the right emotion.
“What was good about that shot is they knew [Embiid] was going to be missing so [Salter] was able to set up the cameras so he could get the exact same angle,” says Dan Larkin, Sports Illustrated’s director of premedia. That, along with making sure the lighting, room, jerseys and depth of field were consistent, allowed the images to be edited together. Digital adjustments were made (like changing the background color to blue) and the end result was an iconic cover.
“I concentrate on getting the performance,” Salter says. “That’s what seals the deal. That’s what makes compelling photography, getting the subjects of your photograph to get really into it.”
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