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 background "noise."
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."