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 out."
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 willing—art.
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."
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."