The further back in time we travel in our minds, the more we rely
on photographs to fill in the gaps. How many of us can remember
much of our early childhood without prompting from the family
album? In fact, what happened a half hour ago is for some of us a
distressing test of short-term memory; only by converting fluid
events into a series of images can sense be made of things that
happened yesterday, last week, last year. It's hard to conceive
of how imagination worked before the invention of photography in
Looking backward to explain this state of affairs, we can spot
glimmerings of the present in the 19th-century work of Eadweard
Muybridge and George Eastman. Muybridge was the English
photographer who cracked the riddle of time. His 1870s invention
of a rapid-fire shutter that froze action into thousandths of a
second permitted anyone to see in a photograph how bodies really
In an 1878 experiment that earned Muybridge world renown, he set
up a bank of 12 stereoscopic cameras mounted along the rails of a
California racetrack to prove that Leland Stanford's trotter
Occident lifted all four hooves off the ground during the cycle
of its stride. Our perception of time has never been the same;
Muybridge's photographs offered visible proof that the world was
made up of discrete moments, almost infinitely divisible.
Stop-action photography, motion pictures and instant replay are
only a few of his legacies.
Eastman was the American entrepreneur who brought photography to
the masses. By pricing his 1888 handheld box camera within reach
of the middle class, he not only encouraged a demand for his
products among generations of amateurs but also helped to
transform picture taking from a static act that required a tripod
to one that allowed, and even rewarded, mobility on the part of
the person clicking the shutter. The world could now be captured
from almost any vantage point, from atop a horse or out a train
window. By the end of the 19th century, thanks in no small part
to the shutterbug and the industrialist, photography had learned
One of the first to pick up the jazzy steps was Jacques-Henri
Lartigue, a curious boy from an upper-class Parisian family who
took his camera into the bathtub and the backyard, delighting in
the ceaseless flow of novel perspectives that a quick, portable
machine could capture. He photographed his nanny throwing a ball,
his cousin leaping down a staircase, strangers out for a
glamorous meander on the boulevards.
Most of all, though, he loved speed. He could not get enough of
the many kinds of vehicles in which human beings were learning to
compete--racing by bicycle, automobile, motorcycle, balloon,
airplane. His camera documented with wide-eyed candor the
accelerating pace of life in the 20th century.
As a group, these early images, taken mainly between 1904 and
1929, constitute the first--and in certain respects the
best--sports photographs ever made.
New pictorial technology inspired new pictorial realities, and
vice versa. Exacting lenses with various focal lengths,
introduced in the '20s and '30s by Zeiss for sleek lightweight
cameras from Leica and Contax, allowed for much sharper
definition in fainter light and more portability than before.
Modernists adored these elegant machines. Martin Munkacsi's
picture of a motorcyclist zooming through a puddle, taken in the
'20s with a Leica, must have struck Lartigue with envy.
Across the pond, experiments in the '30s at MIT by Harold
Edgerton led to his invention of the strobe, an electronic light
source that emitted rapid bursts so fast that it subdivided
motion into visible fractions Muybridge barely dreamed of. As
photographers learned to synchronize their shutters to this
piercing radiation (and Kodak designed film sensitive enough to
absorb it), photography in palatial indoor arenas became routine.
Certain feats from those years have seldom been surpassed. For
her lavish portrayal of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Leni
Riefenstahl directed her crew of 80 cameramen to film events from
an array of fresh angles (the long jump shot from a hole inside
the landing pit) and with striking illumination (the decathlon
lit by torches at night). The sensuality of the black-and-white
imagery in Olympia, verging at times on kitschy eroticism, has
made it the most imitated of sports documentaries. The camera
dotes on the sheen of Jesse Owens's muscles, perhaps the first
time a white woman had dared to photograph a black man with such
unbridled admiration. (Riefenstahl's supporters liked to cite her
depiction of Owens's triumph--and Hitler's evident disgust--to
bolster her contention after World War II that she hadn't really
been a Nazi.) In both her still and moving images of athletes,
she showed later generations how to glorify the body.
But the pleasure we derive from any image, Edgerton's or
Riefenstahl's, commonly has little to do with technical
perfection or international politics, and the original occasion
for a great picture may now be fuzzy or irrelevant. In the late
John G. Zimmerman's 1956 photograph for SI of Montreal Canadiens
goalie Jacques Plante (page 71) defending against a rush up ice
by the Rangers, whether or not New York scored is probably
forgotten, even by the few survivors who were there. What makes
the picture riveting is the crowd: the tiers of white males in
jackets and ties and fedoras. It's a group portrait of a more
formal era, when people dressed up for a sporting event as if it
were a Noel Coward play.
Arranged like a flip book, the photographs published in Sports
Illustrated since the first issue in 1954 would chronicle other
historic shifts. The magazine was founded in the year of Brown v.
Board of Education, and the skin tones of the athletes in its
pages have gradually turned from milky white to darker shades in
many hues, from Michael Jordan ebony to Tiger Woods teak.
A select series of images could reveal the frightening growth of
the NFL lineman and his body armor, as well as the mutations of
the baseball slugger, from undernourished Ted Williams to
incredible hulks Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds. We could watch the
rise and fall of men's shorts in the NBA and the NCAA, from
crotch-tight, Speedo-like trunks of 1964 to the mid-calf bloomers
of today, a social barometer as telling as Chanel's hemlines.
This magazine does not think of itself as a catalog of
influential hair, but trends often infiltrate the culture only
when images of an admired figure are printed and then strike a
responsive chord in the general population. Dorothy Hamill's
cropped locks and MJ's shaved pate dictated how to do your 'do
for hordes of imitators, not only in their own sports but far
Quite apart from the personality in the frame, however, every
photograph is also a record of its own means of production. The
technical limits and signature of an era, as well as sudden leaps
in innovation, become embedded in the emulsion of the film and
the textures of the page. The hundreds of thousands of
photographs that have been published in Sports Illustrated
chronicle the history of the medium over the last 50 years and
can be read like the growth rings of a tree.
When the magazine began in 1954, the standard tools of the press
photographer were the Graflex and the Speed Graphics,
fantastically complex and versatile machines, with three
viewfinders and two shutters.
In the right hands its generous four-by-five-inch negative
delivered luscious tones, particularly in black and white. Many
of the boxing masterworks by Charles Hoff of New York's Daily
News were done with a Graflex; Weegee lugged his to hundreds of
By the late '50s, though, almost everyone on a sports beat was
eager to convert to the fast and dependable 35-mm gear coming out
of Japan and exemplified by the Nikon F-series. The problem was
that taking good pictures was only half the battle of putting
good pictures in the magazine. Former SI staff photographer
Marvin Newman, who began shooting sports for the Associated Press
in 1952, recalls the foot-dragging resistance to 35-mm from the
printers whose job it was to transform photographs into plates
for reproduction. "The engravers wanted a big negative," he says.
"They said they needed that quality of detail for reproduction,
especially in color. They didn't want to change."
But photographers and editors pushed back, and by the end of the
decade 35-mm--at least for action shots--became standard. Black
and white remained the tonal choice throughout the '60s. Morris
Berman's shattering 1964 picture of a bloodied and bowed Y.A.
Tittle, and Ray Lussier's 1970 shot of Bobby Orr levitating after
his Stanley Cup goal, were both black and white. Color film
wasn't thought to be entirely trustworthy until the early '70s
and, to a few remaining holdouts and snobs, still isn't.
Although reliable long telephoto lenses were not widely available
until the mid-'60s, some of them, originally developed by Zeiss
for Riefenstahl, were adapted early on for SI's Nikon equipment.
Not many magazines could afford to outfit its staff with these
135-mm to 600-mm lenses, much less hire talent who knew how to
According to Neil Leifer, who cut his teeth as a prolific
freelancer for SI throughout the '60s and joined the magazine's
staff in 1972, "you could count on one hand the top guys who
could grab action in crack focus with a telephoto back then.
Those lenses made heroes of SI photographers John Biever and
Walter Iooss. Now you see one of those close-up shots from every
game. But the old cameras required a hand-eye coordination you
don't need anymore with autofocus."
"Focusing then was like safecracking," says Iooss. "As a sports
photographer, you always went with the fastest piece of glass,
but you had to have a feel for certain lenses. The barrels were
so small in diameter that you really had to turn them to go from
infinity to anything closer."
Iooss was among the first to make a name for himself as a
telephoto marksman. "The 600 became my money lens," he says.
Training his eye to fill the frame with blocks of color and
ignore the extraneous, Iooss captured dozens of big football
moments, including game-winning catches by Jimmy Orr in 1962 and
Dwight Clark in 1982. Even so, he retains a special fondness for
an image from an inconsequential 1963 Steelers-Giants contest. "I
was able to squeeze 14 guys into the frame, helmet to cleat," he
says. "I may never take a better football picture."
The medium is inherently time-warping. The enigmatic immediacy of
a photograph--the sense that a moment is happening in front of
your face and simultaneously vanishing further into the past as
you're studying it--plays tricks with memory. Nineteenth-century
photographs of the Roman Colosseum look so antique by now that
they've begun to seem as old as the ruins themselves. Images that
date from the '50s and '60s can, if you were alive then,
sometimes appear closer to the present than those made last week.
By preserving images of the heroes we idolized as children,
photography can keep Johnny Unitas, Jim Brown, Mickey Mantle,
Bill Russell, Jean Beliveau and Nadia Comaneci in their prime;
and, if we're not careful, we can think we're back there with
them, trapped in the glory days of yesteryear. "You want to
remember athletes when they were young," says Iooss. "You want to
see Muhammad Ali in '63. You want Michael Jordan in those first
years out of North Carolina."
But many of the best sports photographs also prove that our
affection for the days of our youth isn't simply illusion and
nostalgia. The light really was different in, say, Zimmerman's
picture at Madison Square Garden and in the celebrated boxing
photographs by Leifer and Hy Peskin. The sculpted quality of the
figures was a result of big, powerful strobes that zapped action
at 1/5,000 or even 1/10,000 of a second. (Today's portable
strobes are more user-friendly but can manage only about 1/750
of a second.) Leifer hung equipment in the rafters that could
generate a pulse of light as bright as the sun.
Leifer also blames the smoking ban for the loss of atmosphere in
many of today's boxing photographs. "On a fight night in a place
like Madison Square Garden in the '60s, you had 15,000 men--and
they were mostly men--who would start smoking when they sat down
for the first fight on the card, so that by 10 o'clock the arena
was full of smoke to the rafters. That cloud is what gave
photographs that bluish cast. The smoke acted like a filter. The
arena lights were aimed straight down, so the fighters' faces had
dramatic shadows. And you didn't have to worry about shooting
into banks of television lights."
Leifer is convinced that his classic overhead shot of the
triumphant Ali and the knocked-out Cleveland Williams in the
Astrodome (page 124) is unrepeatable. "No one will ever take a
picture like that again," he says. "Not because I'm so great.
Because of the canvas. You look at that picture, and all you see
are Ali and Cleveland and the canvas and the banks of spectators.
Today in the center of the canvas you'd have the name of the
hotel, and Don King, and Budweiser, and HBO, and other bits of
junk. It would be too busy. In those days there was nothing to
take the eye away from the fighters."
Clutter of all kinds is now found on the sidelines of football
games as well. So many hundreds of photographers are accredited
for the Super Bowl that gridlock in the end zone is a constant
danger. Framing a shot that isn't filled with other photographers
can be a challenge. But if movement during the game has become
increasingly restricted, access to players off the field is in
even greater peril. Heinz Kluetmeier, who has been with SI since
1968, remembers when the Associated Press asked him to photograph
the Green Bay Packers at their training camp in 1958. "I was 16,"
he says. "Here I am, walking into the Green Bay Packers'
cafeteria when Lombardi saw me and asked what I wanted. I said I
needed to photograph Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor and Bart Starr. So
Lombardi yelled across the room, 'Hey Paul, Jim, Bart, get over
here, this kid needs your picture.' That's all it took. Today
you'd have to go through agents, publicists and bodyguards."
Virtually all of the leading sports photographers today have
switched to digital cameras. Image quality is now measured in
pixels, and the final product is stored as files, not on slides
or contact sheets. Photographers can work indoors in natural
light and shoot at speeds that were unthinkable in the past,
because a software program can pull out the desired
information--the runner breaking the tape--and eliminate
Kluetmeier doesn't want to denigrate the new generation, but he
can't help believing that "virtuosity is often just the ability
to push the right autofocus button. They're getting great
pictures, but that's because the cameras are so good."
A smart camera, however, doesn't mean the person carrying it is
smart, and a picture isn't necessarily better just because it was
harder to make. Celebrated Civil War photographer Mathew Brady,
whose assistants had to coat glass-plate negatives with collodion
just to start his laborious process, was not superior as an
artist to Alfred Stieglitz, who 50 years later never toiled under
You can now do more with less than ever before, but digital
technology hasn't improved anyone's ability to think, or plan.
"The lenses are better, the focus is better," says Newman. "But
the earth hasn't changed that much. Or the sun." Like shrewd pool
players, the best sports photographers are agile strategists.
They anticipate action. They know the angles of the game and the
speed of players; and when light transforms the mundane into the
luminous, they can knock the shot straight into the pocket.
In many cases, as Kluetmeier says, "it's often not so much about
photographing who wins the game as it is the emotional reaction
of the people playing or watching."
Photographers, like everyone else in the media over the last 50
years, have ceded power to television. Even the overwhelming
advantage of feline agility that they used to enjoy when the
networks viewed games through hulking, 200-pound cameras on rigid
pivots has gradually disappeared with the advent of handheld
digital video. But television is a medium under the sway of time
slots and advertising breaks, and their cameras are switched off
as soon as the game ends. As athletes and fans decompress and
return to the real world, photographers are often still shooting
away in the twilight.
Sporting events regularly produce epiphanies far beyond the
creative reach of television and available only to readers of
magazines and newspapers. There are at least two outstanding
photographs of Bill Mazeroski's bottom-of-the-ninth, seventh-game
1960 home run for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The networks showed
neither of them. Marvin Newman captured the exquisite arc at
liftoff; the clock on the scoreboard has even marked the very
minute that the Yankees lost the World Series.
George Silk, on the other hand, wasn't at the game. He chose to
stand about a mile away and record the local crowd's reaction to
this finale. Standing on the roof of a University of Pittsburgh
building that overlooked Forbes Field, he made a picture of
far-off cause and close-up effect. The distant bowl of the
stadium and the etched diamond in the dirt tells us that the
subject is baseball. But more generally the photograph is about
being a fan and sharing with strangers a gust of
handkerchief-waving mass exultation.
Those two pictures reinforce each other and bookend the day's
triumph and tragedy with a dramatic concision and emotional
satisfaction impossible to experience when watching the game
again on ESPN Classic. Photographs edit out the yawning lulls and
banal commentary, stuff you couldn't do without while the game
was actually happening but that seems tedious and imprisoning
when you're sitting through a replay of your memories. None of us
want to be stuck in Groundhog Day, reliving our lives in real
As the definitive summation of our collective memory of the last
50 years in sports, the pictures on these pages of men, women and
children, and the games they played, are incomplete and even, in
some cases, opaque without words that explain them. Photographs
certainly don't tell the whole story. But they are the most
trusted and realistic illusions we have.
B/W PHOTO: HAROLD EDGERTON/HAROLD & ESTHER EDGERTON FOUNDATION, 2004, COURTESY OF PALM PRESS, INC. THE STROBE A foot kicking a ball demonstrates Edgerton's new method of freezing action in a photograph.
B/W PHOTO: EADWEARD MUYBRIDGE/CORBIS
B/W PHOTO: HAROLD & ESTHER EDGERTON FOUNDATION, 2004, COURTESY OF PALM PRESS, INC. PLAYING THROUGH Early strobe experiments focused on the golf swing.
B/W PHOTO: BETTMANN/CORBIS KODAK MOMENT Eastman made the camera portable and affordable.
B/W PHOTO: JACQUES-HENRI LARTIGUE GRAN PRIZE Lartigue shot some of the earliest--and best--sports photos.
B/W PHOTO: LENI RIEFENSTAHL PINUP Riefenstahl made adoring images of Owens at the Berlin Games.
B/W PHOTO: CORBIS CLOSE-UP Sports photographers once had much greater access to stars like DiMaggio--on and off the field.
B/W PHOTO: GEORGE SILK/LIFE DISTANT THUNDER Silk got far from the action for a different perspective on Mazeroski's shot in '60.
EDGERTON'S STROBE EMITTED RAPID BURSTS OF LIGHT SO FAST THAT IT
SUBDIVIDED MOTION INTO VISIBLE FRACTIONS
THE SENSUALITY OF THE BLACK-AND-WHITE IMAGERY IN RIEFENSTAHL'S
OLYMPIA VERGES ON KITSCHY EROTICISM
BY PRESERVING IMAGES OF THE HEROES WE IDOLIZED AS CHILDREN,
PHOTOGRAPHY CAN KEEP THEM IN THEIR PRIME
"IT'S OFTEN NOT SO MUCH ABOUT WHO WINS AS IT IS THE EMOTIONAL
REACTION OF THE PEOPLE PLAYING OR WATCHING"