John Zimmerman once had the idea of shooting the puck from
inside the net. He was always creating some clever setup, trying
to get a fresh take on an event. In that way he was a pioneer in
sports photography back in the '50s and '60s, giving us all
surprising looks at games we thought we'd already seen. So here
was his latest point of view: that of an NHL goalie when Bobby
Orr was sending a screamer at him. "I got the shot," remembers
Zimmerman, "but it was kind of dark, and the puck didn't show up
that well. So the photo editor at LIFE circled it on the print
and left a note with the engraver to 'bring this out.' When I
saw the picture in the magazine the next week, the puck was
gone. The engraver had brought it out, all right. All the way
Which is to say that while sports photography is driven by
technology--anybody remember what it was like to focus a camera?
Wind film?--it has always been and always will be dependent on
the talents and ingenuity of the person behind the lens. What's
more, it will be done (mostly) regardless of obstacles,
traditions or fellow man's stupidity. Sports photographers
battle failing light, unwilling subjects, sideline cold and
increasingly militant security. At their best, they combine
invention, perseverance and talent to create--engravers
When the century began, there wasn't much appetite for sports
photography and little means of producing it. Cameras and film
were not designed for or capable of much besides portraiture. As
games became important to the public, though, it was up to the
photographer to figure out how to capture the one moment that
crystallized an event for delivery in the morning paper. These
days anybody can sit in the stands and snap off a roll of decent
exposures. But in the '20s it wasn't so easy.
Nat Fein, now 84 and best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning
"number 3" shot (the from-behind photo of Babe Ruth at his
retirement), recalls hauling "Big Bertha," a primitive long-lens
camera, around to his baseball assignments. "It had slots, like
a gearshift, to focus on first base, or second base or home
plate," he says. "Big Bertha weighed 85 pounds, but I used to
lug it on the subway to save the $3.50 cab fare."
July 25, 1999
Of course Fein had it easy at Yankee Stadium. He had sunlight.
Others, forced to shoot in the dimness of, say, Madison Square
Garden, had to rig their own little suns. For his famous fight
pictures in the '40s, Charles Hoff illuminated the ring with 300
pounds of action-stopping strobe lights. Hoff's "tripper cord"
allowed him to freeze time in order to get those great shots of
fighters' faces hideously distorted by the impact of punches.
SI's Heinz Kluetmeier, who grew up under the influence of
Zimmerman and Hy Peskin and George Silk, says, "They were not
just great photographers but technically way ahead of their
time. They built stuff we take for granted, whether it's long
lens, split lens for water photography--they virtually created
the equipment to satisfy their vision of something."
That innovation has continued, as photographers keep searching
for new ways to present the games. They now have motor drives
that allow them to shoot nine frames per second, autofocus that
compensates for failing eye-hand coordination, faster film that
permits color shots in all kinds of light, remote controls that
can set off cameras from the rafters of any arena, and lenses
longer than their arm to bring the action up front. "Now," says
SI photographer Walter Iooss Jr., "you have two, three chances
to get that decisive moment, that one frame when the right
people are in the right place at the right time."
With faster film and autofocus and a longer lens, the
photographer can stop action on any subject from any distance.
In addition, there is no longer any angle in the building safe
from his or her imagination. Today's shooters have access to
enough remote-control equipment--the Wizard System, for
instance, triggers as many as 24 widely dispersed cameras at the
same instant--that an important basketball game might be covered
girder to girder. John McDonough, who has become identified with
this kind of innovative photography, says the modern
photographer is often exhausted by game time, having spent six
or seven hours positioning equipment for some overhead shot or
some sequential triggering of exposures. "You wonder how you're
going to get through a game," he says.
For all that, though, the best photographers are not automatons,
mere slaves to the technology. They use it, but they count on
their heads and hearts to capture what Kluetmeier calls "that
fleeting moment, which is more often not the winning touchdown
but the emotional reaction to winning and losing, the common
thread of life. It's Lombardi being carried off, Y.A. Tittle
bloody and bowed. Those are the images people remember--more
than the winning touchdown."
Iooss, who caught what may be the most reproduced winning
touchdown in history, agrees. He set off a minirevolution by
snapping Dwight Clark's catch in the 1982 NFC title game with a
35-mm camera equipped with a 50-mm lens that he had slung around
his neck: After that picture every top photographer kept a
similar camera on hand just for the one picture that happened
right in his or her face. But that is not Iooss's favorite
football picture of the many he has shot. More memorable for him
was a shot at Mile High Stadium involving no play action
whatsoever. "I was taken with the orange color of the distant
wall," he says. "There were two doors, VISITORS and OFFICIALS,
and I decided just to watch those doors, to wait for that
decisive moment. At one point a player stuck his head out of one
of the doors, and that was my picture."
Neil Leifer, a 18-year SI veteran, took his first big picture
when he was 16, with what he calls a "poor man's Rolleiflex." He
didn't have a credential for the 1958 NFL championship game
between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, and snuck
into the outfield by volunteering to wheel in the paraplegics
who had been invited to Yankee Stadium from the Army Veterans
Hospital. With his camera hidden under his coat, he inched his
way up the field and got his famous picture of Colts running
back Alan Ameche twisting for a touchdown in overtime to win the
Greatest NFL Game Ever.
Leifer's most recognizable photo is of Muhammad Ali standing
over Sonny Liston and snarling at him after decking him in their
second fight. "As often as I shot fights, I never seemed to get
the punch," Leifer says, "and my colleagues always kidded me
about that." But he got the shot: The image of Ali, looking
fierce and exultant and beautiful as he stood over his fallen
foe, said more about this unique athlete than any action shot he
might have turned in.
Kluetmeier, who's always seeking a fresh angle, favors a
handheld shot he took in 1988 that has an eerie repose. In a
playoff game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Chicago
Bears that came to be known as the Fog Bowl, Kluetmeier shot a
field goal attempt from the corner of the end zone. The ball is
high in the air, approaching the goalposts. In the distance is
the small tumult of players, their muted actions barely
visible--or even relevant--in the milky haze.
Even Zimmerman, who has done plenty of innovative things with a
camera, finds his personal favorite in a virtual portrait. "The
baseball picture I love the most," he says, "is of President
Eisenhower leaving the stadium after a World Series game in
Brooklyn. He's passing under the scoreboard, saluting the crowd."
What characterizes these pictures is a sense of context that is
increasingly absent in sports photography as magazines and
newspapers favor tight, high-impact shots. The autofocus that
allows dead-on clarity, and the 800-mm lens that brings the
opposite sideline into our laps give us slam-bang images. Never
has action been so powerfully translated to the page. Yet, some
complain, the tightness of these shots sacrifices all sense of
time and place, reducing the pictures to generic action photos.
The technology allows us to see the contorted face of the
ballcarrier, but it strips away the history of the event. "Keep
in mind how charmed we are by old-time pictures," says
Kluetmeier. "It's not the action, it's the people in the stands.
They're all wearing hats! Or it's a picture of Babe Ruth
standing in the outfield, and all you find behind him is a black
audience. And you realize that the fans were segregated."
More and more these days, a photographer has to practice a
difficult restraint to restore that context and get the great
shot. Leifer was at the seventh game of the 1960 World Series
and, like any other prepared photographer, had his long lens
trained on the Pittsburgh Pirates' Bill Mazeroski when he hit
the winning home run. "In a million years I wouldn't think to
have gotten the score in that shot," he says. "That's something
you might have done with amateur equipment. But Marvin Newman
had a feeling, went away from the close-up, and he got one of
the two or three best-known sports pictures ever. That takes
Today's photographer works in an increasingly competitive
jungle. If you've ever been to a basketball or football game and
seen the sidelines packed with photographers, you have an idea
of what they're up against. How can any photographer produce a
singular shot from that mob? There is a picture Iooss took in
1969 during Super Bowl week, showing Joe Namath in his swim
trunks on a chaise lounge, surrounded by a handful of reporters
and photographers. "Those days are long gone," says Iooss. "Now
it's a zoo." Now the starting quarterback might make his
mandatory appearance at "media day," and that will be his only
But, amazingly, great shots still get produced. Iooss, in the
zoo that was Mark McGwire's final home run of last season, found
an unusual position and got an interesting shot of the
aftermath, McGwire circling the bases under a blue sky. Leifer,
sitting five rows back in the press section instead of in the
conventional ringside position, got a powerful shot of Mike
Tyson crumpling Frans Botha.
Well, things change, and not always for the better. The film is
faster, but the sideline is now shoulder to shoulder. The lens
is longer, but the access is limited. The focus is automatic,
but the athletes are scarce and reluctant. Still, the
photographers make do. As long as there is anything interesting
to see, apparently, the best of them will find a way to capture
it. Of course, whether you get to see it or not, that's up to
For his fight pictures in the '40s, Hoff lit the ring with 300
pounds of strobe lights.
With faster film, autofocus and a longer lens, photographers can
now stop action from any distance.