A LENS DIMLY
There is another shot of Ali that stands out in my mind as a sports icon, even though it never got the play that the aforementioned shot did. It's a photo that hangs in the hall at Newsday and was made by one of my colleagues. Smiley was one of the best sports shooters that I ever knew. He had an exquisite sense of timing which was borne out by this particular photo. He was at that classic Cassius Clay vs Joe Frazier (?) fight, and was right under the two protagonists when Clay/Ali caught Frazier (?) with a wicked right to the jaw. His photo captured the moment of impact and the force of that collision showed Frazier's (?) face being distorted as well as the spray of sweat that was thrown from his head at that instant. My God! For the years that I had left at Newsday before retiring, I would always stop in front of that photo being displayed with other Newsday classics, and stand in awe.
Now, I wanted to make a sports icon photo. Especially a boxing shot like Smiley's. I mean, how hard could it be? It wasn't like any of the field sports where the action ranged over huge areas. Or even like basketball with action charging from one goal to the other. This was all taking place in a relatively small area, bounded by ropes. And, from what I've seen on tv, both participants in the bout are throwing punches at each other. Maybe I could get lucky with the timing and get a point of impact shot like the Ali photo.
I got my chance, sort of, when Sports needed some photos of a newly configured ring which contained 4 ropes instead of the usual 3. It was supposed to be safer for the athletes. One of these had just been installed at the old Sunnyside Arena in Queens and I was dispatched there to make some shots. There were some Golden Glove bouts being fought. Sports wasn't concerned about the action. My assignment was to focus on the fact that the boxers were in one of these 4 rope rings.
This match, as I said, was a Golden Gloves Tournament and wasn't drawing any media attention other than me, nor was there much of a crowd in attendance. I was able to take my pick of spots to make my photos. In order to get enough of the ring to show the new rope configuration, I worked from a few rows back. After I had enough to satisfy the Sports Desk, I was free to pursue my dream of the ultimate boxing photo. There was little chance of anything I made being used by the paper because it wasn't a major event. But, it gave me the opportunity to show that I was capable of being a great sports shooter, should the occasion arise.
I moved down to a stool behind one of the corners and poked my Nikon under the lower rope. Smiley had told me, once, that you can't really use the viewfinder for boxing. You snap on a wide angle lens and just move the camera in the general direction of the boxers by guess and by golly, and wait for the action to come close to your corner. You had to pray that the knock-out, if it came, happened in your corner and not all the way across the ring. If that happened, you had to shoot whatever you could and hope that it would survive the extreme enlargement by the darkroom.
I followed Smiley's advice, and for the next hour or so, I trained my camera on the sweaty bodies laboring above me. I didn't have a motor drive, back then, so every time a punch was thrown, I would hit the shutter button and crank the film to be ready for the next flurry of action. Oh, man, I was getting some really great shots. There were no knock-downs, but I know that I had some frames that would produce an iconic photo as good, or maybe even better than Smiley's.
I couldn't wait to get back to the paper and run my film. As soon as the rolls came out of the drier, I had them on the light table and was passing the loupe over each frame. Crap! There was no icon in the bunch. In some frames, the punch hadn't landed yet. In others, the punch had landed but was now well past the point of impact. In fact, in most of the frames, the boxer's gloved fist all but covered his opponent's face so that all you saw was glove. That's when I really appreciated Smiley's exquisite timing. The punches came at lightning speed and they had to be anticipated. You couldn't wait for the movement that signaled the onset of a punch. By the time you recognized it and hit the shutter, it was all over. I knew that attaining the precision that is the hallmark of a true sports shooter would never happen in my lifetime.
Alas, such is the case with most sports. I found this out later on when I had to cover some horse races.
never been to a horse race. I had seen a few on tv, but you have
no point of reference so speed is a relative thing. Newsday had
reporters covering races at the two tracks in Queens; Belmont
and Aquaduct Raceways. They got their race photos from the wires.
A couple of times a year they might send the Sports Photographer
to cover a major race like The Belmont Stakes.
When the next race was announced, I went down to the break in the infield fence. I had noticed the dozen or so sports photographers collect there before each race, to be allowed to cross the track to take their places in the infield near the finish line. When one of the stewards opened the gate, we filed across the dirt track and took positions in the infield. Some of the shooters went to a stand just past the finish line to get a higher vantage point from which to shoot the finish. That was too mundane for me. I wanted drama. After all, I was shooting the definitive race photo. I had seen some very dramatic photos that came from a very low angle right at the finish line made with a very wide angled lens. You know the ones I mean. The horse is practically in your face and you can see the dirt flying from the hooves that are inches away from your lens. Now that's drama.
No one else was setting up for that shot, so I got down on my belly to frame my masterpiece through the viewfinder. Then I waited for the horses. The starting gate had been set up somewhere behind me, on the opposite side of the oval track. I could hear the track announcer describing the action to the crowd as he explained how the jockeys were guiding their steeds into the gate. Bells rang and he cried out, "And they're off."
He gave a running commentary about each horse's position as they reached the first turn, and as they raced down the backstretch. All of this was out of sight from my position so I depended on the announcer's comments to prepare me for my shot.
"They're at the final turn and coming into the straightaway with Feedlebaum in the lead and Mamma's Friend close behind."
I could only see what was directly in front of me through my viewfinder so I couldn't follow the progress of the event. But now I could hear the thunder of their hooves and the roar of the crowd as the race drew to a finish. I pressed my eye to the viewfinder and my finger to the shutter release button. I had no motor drive at that time so I knew that I was only going to get one shot and one shot only. And, one shot was all I got. Unfortunately, it was shot of the ass end of the last place horse as he flew past me. By the time I saw the front hooves of the lead horse appear in my viewfinder and I pushed the button, that horse was well past me. Jeez. These are friggin animals; not supercharged auto racers. I had no idea that they were that fast.
Well, I wasn't going to waste any more time on that shot. Obviously, it would take more time than I could devote to get my timing perfected in order to make a picture like that. There were about 40 minutes until the next race went off, so I went back to the grandstand to get a hot dog.
When the next race was announced, I again followed the other shooters across the track. This time I moved a little past the finish line. Once more I opted for a low angle shot, but this time I would use a medium tele and would shoot looking down the track as the horses approached the finish line. I sat on the infield grass and focused my lens on the finish line. I would shoot as soon as the horses came into focus.
Strange. I didn't see any of the other photographers. They were nowhere in sight. I though that maybe they're shooting the start. What did I know about covering horse races?
I heard the track announcer calling off the positions of the
contestants as they reached specific portions of the track.
I looked down the track through my lens. I didn't see any damned horses. What the hell was he talking about? I started to panic.
"Dirtbag is in the lead as they approach the finish!"
I stared through my lens at an empty track as the crowd roared. And then I heard the thunder of hooves from in back of me. I turned to see horses speeding behind me, on the infield. It was a friggin Steeplechase where the horses race on a dirt track on the infield and jump over hedge hurdles. I could only wonder what the thousands of racing fans in the grandstand must have thought I was doing, squatting at the infield fence while the race took place behind me.
I slunk across the track and headed to my car.
Did I mention that a sports shooter I'm not?
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