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 auto-focus 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 closeup, and he got one of the two or three best-known sports pictures ever. That takes guts."
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 Na-math 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 pregame availability.
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 the engraver.