SI Vault
Lisa Altobelli
April 26, 2004
From fish-eyes to black boxes, SI photographers have pushed their craft to its limits, and beyond—often to a whole new way of seeing
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April 26, 2004

Flash Of Inspiration

From fish-eyes to black boxes, SI photographers have pushed their craft to its limits, and beyond—often to a whole new way of seeing

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An SI photographer once complained to his editor that John Zimmerman was allotted three assistants while the other staff shooters only got one each. The editor responded that the ratio was equitable because Zimmerman worked 24 hours a day, so his assistants were really only working three normal eight-hour shifts. That was an exaggeration, but not a whopper—Zimmerman was constantly taking his cameras apart, searching for a new way to shoot a picture. That restlessness, that ambition, is a trait shared by all the best SI photographers, which is why so many groundbreaking photographs have run in the magazine over the last 50 years. Here are just a few of them; think of the following pages as an introductory course—Photographic Genius 101.

Trainor had to use all his charm to persuade officials at this track event in Coral Gables, Fla., to let him place his camera this close to the pole plant; it could have been distracting for the pole vaulter...and dangerous for the fish-eye lens, which was rare and expensive back then. But John Pennel wasn't affected—he soared 17 feet to break his own world record, while Trainor triggered this shot by remote. Trainor got a break from the weather, too—without those clouds, the figures in the picture would have all been silhouettes.

The first fight in the Houston Astrodome was the first time anyone shot a complete aerial image of a ring without using a fish-eye lens. It was possible because the lighting rig was 80 feet up so it would not obstruct the view of spectators in the upper deck. Leifer secured his camera to the rig, ran a cable down to a foot pedal for his remote and patiently waited for Muhammad Ali to floor Cleveland Williams.

Rangers officials couldn't find anything in the NHL rule book prohibiting it, so they allowed Zimmerman to mount two wide-angle Nikons to the goal's back pipe. The first time he set it up, a workman had to chip through the ice to run remote wires to Zimmerman's seat and then resurface the ice. This picture of Bobby Orr was taken in 1970.

Intent on conveying the speed of world-class runners, Silk modified his camera so that a slit shutter would stay open for a few seconds while the film moved past it at a speed proportional to the speed of the subject. It took plenty of number-crunching—and trial and error—to create this picture of hurdlers at the Olympic trials in Palo Alto, Calif. "The bugbear of photography is clich�," Silk says, "and here I succeeded in getting past it."

For these shots taken at the Staples Center in 2000, McDonough used a technique developed by SI in 1992 that he went on to perfect. He strapped a camera to the catwalk (with the lens pointed down), another in the stands and a third behind the backboard. Then he synced them all to his handheld camera at the far end of the court. All four cameras were linked by remote transmitters, so that when Shaq put the block on Kings center Vlade Divac, McDonough pressed the trigger on his camera, and all four fired simultaneously.

Zimmerman got five shots for the price of one by spending a lot of time...and money. He hung drapes around an outdoor pool to create the ideal backdrop for Jenni Chandler as she performed her forward 1� twist. He kept his shutter open for the entire dive and fired five pairs of strobes sequentially to create the five images of her in this photo. His biggest challenge was getting the underwater shot in focus—for that, he had one strobe above the water and one underwater. He had also spent months modifying a lens at his dining room table to cut down on the refractions that typically distort underwater images.

Intent on depicting Nate (Tiny) Archibald's shifty moves, Zimmerman had Tiny stand perfectly still and let his camera do the weaving. Zimmerman placed a slit camera, which had a rolling round lens that panned downward, on a tripod that allowed the camera to be moved laterally. Zimmerman held the camera steady as the lens panned down from Tiny's head, but when the lens reached Tiny's torso, Zimmerman moved the camera laterally 15 times, until the camera had panned down to the ground. That's why Archibald's upper torso doesn't "wiggle." Zimmerman had to slow down the shutter movement considerably to get all this in one frame.