As much of an influence as SPORTS ILLUSTRATED has had upon the literature of sports over the past 50 years, it probably has had even more of an impact upon sports photography. After all, whereas newspaper sports pages had been around since the 1880s and a whole genre of sportswriting had grown up, sports photography was not nearly as advanced as a discipline when SI debuted in 1954. Pictures tended to be posed, and often in a hackneyed manner—how many clutch hitters were asked to kiss their Louisville Sluggers? And while technological advances in cameras, such as the big Speed Graphics, had improved action pictures, sports photos tended to a stylized sameness. The only photographer who was well-known for his distinctive work in sports was the appropriately named Ozzie Sweet, who took rich, dreamy portraits for Sport magazine.
Longtime SI photographer Neil Leifer (page 94)—who got his professional start in 1958, as a brash teenager, volunteering to wheel invalids onto the sidelines of Giants football games, then uncovering his hidden camera and shooting surreptitiously—puts it this way: "For sports photographers in the '50s and '60s, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED wasn't just the major league. It was the only league." SI photographers were given the time and resources that newspaper shooters never had to prepare for their assignments. This was vividly evident from Day One, when for the first lead story in the first issue of the magazine Mark Kauffman handicapped the race between the two original four-minute milers, Roger Bannister and John Landy. He did not set up his camera at the finish line; instead he took a position near the head of the stretch because it was there, he forecast, that Bannister would try to pass Landy. Kauffman was dead-on, perfectly catching the crucial moment in the Mile of the Century.
Lighter, more mobile cameras and increasingly sophisticated equipment also allowed inventive photographers, notably John Zimmerman, to take photographs from places where cameras had never gone before (page 122): in a hockey goal, on a basketball backboard. The new young sports photographers—especially Leifer and Walter Iooss Jr. (page 144)—grew up in the craft, quickly catching on to all the new devices, skillfully zeroing in on the action with telescopic lenses. So much of the SI photography was close-up, revealing a new intimacy.
Leifer and Iooss shot live action or perfectly posed covers with equal facility. (And Iooss was also the match of any fashion photographer when the Swim-suit Issue came into its glory.) That versatility was crucial to the magazine's development because in the early years color processing took weeks, so color photos of breaking news could not be used. Early in the magazine's history, being selected to pose for a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover became, more than anything else in America, the ultimate certification of an athlete's majesty.
Having worked with so many photographers since joining the SI staff in '62, I know that they are addicted to saying, as they shoot frame after frame, "Just one more." I will say that myself as I turn these pages and savor the images here.