One of the original photographers hired by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Hy Peskin, passed away last week at the age of 89. Longtime SI photographer Neil Leifer remembers the man who provided some of the magazine's most memorable images.
On the wall in my office are pictures of my two idols: former SI photographer John Zimmerman, who passed away three years ago, and Hy Peskin. In the shot (right) Hy is clutching a camera as he stands in an auxiliary press box in the farthest reaches of leftfield at Yankee Stadium in 1955. Hy's all business, and there's not another photographer in sight. He could have been in the main photo press box, enjoying the beer cooler and the camaraderie of the other photographers. But Hy was much happier way out in leftfield, where there was no one to talk to and where he could get a shot that no one else even thought of looking for.
Hy understood his mission was always to try to get a different picture. One of his best-known photos is of Ben Hogan on the 72nd hole of the 1950 U.S. Open (above, left). Instead of following every other shooter to the green, Hy hung back and took his shot from behind Hogan. You don't even see Hogan's face, yet it's all there: that perfect swing, his signature cap, the crowd. It's one of the most iconic sports photos ever taken, and Hy got it on one of the most important swings of Hogan's career. That was Hy: always defining an epic moment with an epic picture.
And golf wasn't even his forte. He captured the brutal, smoky essence of boxing. Sylvester Stallone told me he got the idea to have Rocky tell his trainer to cut his swollen eye came from Hy's picture (previous page) of Carmen Basilio and Sugar Ray Robinson. (Sly wasn't the only person who wanted to imitate Hy's work. I often asked myself, How would Peskin cover this? That challenge made me a better photographer.)
Back in the '50s photographers could stand on the field in foul territory and shoot games. Hy once took pictures of a player hitting a ball, running to first, making it to third on an errant throw and then scoring--all on the same play. Hy started out just behind first base, and legend has it, sprinted across the pitcher's mound to get the play at third. Then he raced home alongside the runner when the throw got away from the third baseman. Hy denied he took a shortcut across the diamond, but he couldn't deny that he had, in fact, gotten all the shots. That was his tenacity. He'd stop at nothing to get a picture, and that didn't always make him popular with other photographers. He was gruff, but Hy was always very generous with me--at a time when many sports photographers were old-timers who resented a young kid like me.
Unfortunately, Hy felt he had other worlds to conquer. By the mid-1960s he had all but stopped shooting. He changed his name to Brian Blaine Reynolds--the middle names of his three sons--and pursued other interests. (He and Ted Williams formed the World Series of Sports Fishing.) Through it all, we managed to stay in touch. A few years ago Hy personalized that picture of himself that's on my wall. "For Neil, the greatest sports photographer ever," he wrote, underlining ever twice. And I treasure it, because I know deep in my heart who the greatest sports photographer ever really was.