Before digital photography, every picture that ran in the pages of SI, like the one above of Yogi, had a physical counterpart—a slide (many of them Kodachromes, as famously sung about by Paul Simon). The thing about slides, beyond the obvious that you could touch them and hold them up to the light, was that you could scribble notes on them. You might use the slide mount to jot down a quick description of what's happening in the photo. You could give the mount a RETURN to stamp, if you were messengering the slide across town in those days before e-mail. And if the framed photo was a classic—say, Walter Iooss Jr.'s shot of the 49ers' Dwight Clark making "The Catch"—you would see that mount become tagged with so many stickers marking its repeated usage in the magazine that the slide would come to resemble a steamer trunk returned from a journey around the world in an even earlier time.
Today SI catalogs its photos in an electronic database—which is infinitely more efficient than the old filing cabinets full of slides, but not nearly as much fun. With the distance of time, though, these slides can be viewed in a new way: as tiny objects of art. These artifacts of a rapidly receding era of magazine publishing brim with a found beauty; a humble cardboard square somehow fuses a photographic moment with its slowly accumulating embellishments of history.
The appreciation that follows on these pages will also be presented in longer form in a new book, Slide Show (SI Books, May 2009), conceived and designed by then creative director, now special contributor Steven Hoffman and researched and written by associate editor Bill Syken. As with the small collection you see here, the book is a portfolio, a history and an investigation all at the same time (not to mention a reminder of all the crap you learned in high school transformed by photography into a sunny day).
HOW TO READ A SLIDE
THE BLUE STICKER
This indicates that a photograph has been used in either an SI book or in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED KIDS.
Many slides carry printed labels detailing what is happening in the photo. These labels are more prose than poetry, usually limited to the who, what, where and when.
THE YELLOW STICKER
This identifies the issue in which the photo ran. In this case it was a 1996 Chicago Bulls championship commemorative, created by SI's specialty publications division, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED PRESENTS (SIP for short). More often these stickers carry an issue date from the regular weekly edition.
Before digital images could be transported electronically, slides were mailed or couriered for outside use. Often duplicates were made. These stamps mark this slide as an original—with a concerned caretaker at home.
Older slide mounts needed to be cut open when the image was scanned. The mounts would then be reassembled with tape.
THE X NUMBER
Every photographer at every event is assigned a unique X number used for precise cataloging. So every shot John W. McDonough took at this game would be marked X41516. Another photographer at the same game would have a different X number.
TAKE, FRAME, ROLL
Shots are further cataloged by take (generally a commonsense grouping, such as all shots from the first half of a game), by frame and by film roll. This photo, therefore, is from Take 1, Frame 8, Roll 17.
INTO THE SYSTEM
A red dot means the photo has been scanned into SI's electronic photo library.
Some photos, like this one by Neil Leifer, have appeared in books and been marked by publishers with their own annotations.
FIT TO PRINT
The dimensions are a sizing instruction to the technician who is making a physical print from the photograph, for framing or another use.
On slides with no printed label, the only caption information is often just an editor's quick scribble. That's the case for this shot of Austria's Franz Klammer, about to make a gold medal run in the 1976 Olympics.
Photograph by MARK KAUFFMAN MARCH 1955
Photograph by NEIL LEIFER December 26, 1976