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 beyond.
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 crime scenes.
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 exploit them.