To be beautiful – or rather, good – a photograph must have an absolute and essential quality. It must speak for itself. It doesn’t need to be explained because it already contains everything within it. To capture attention and evoke feelings – a whole universe of positive or negative emotions – and leave a mark. Up to this point, we are in the realm of the obvious. It’s also obvious to think that a photographer, a good photographer, knows exactly what to convey, how to do it, and for which audience, even before taking the shot.But it’s not always the case, so much so that even the best photographers know that luck, or being “in the right place at the right time,” or call it what you will, plays a role. Or that a photograph can become something entirely different from what one had imagined, as demonstrated by these three behind-the-scenes stories of iconic images that have entered history.
“The photograph is not art,” claimed Man Ray, and he asserted: “I photograph what I do not want to paint. I paint the invisible. I photograph the visible.” Although today he is universally recognized as the great master and inventor of surrealist photography, Man Ray (or “Uomo Raggio,” the pseudonym of Emmanuel Radnitzky, born in 1890 in Philadelphia to a Jewish family) was a reluctant photographer. He had turned to photography more out of necessity to make a living when he moved to Paris in the 1920s. He began by taking commissioned portraits of the high society of the time, then he was discovered by the world of fashion and advertising. So, Les Larmes (The Tears, 1930) – which, along with the photo of the bare back “in the shape of a violin” of his muse Kiki de Montparnasse, is considered the manifesto image of Surrealism – had a very prosaic origin. Man Ray had taken that close-up of a female eye with long lashes adorned with a handful of glass tears commissioned by a cosmetics company, Cosmecil, to advertise a new, then revolutionary, mascara. Larmes made its first public appearance in newspapers, accompanied by the claim that encouraged women to “cry at the cinema, cry at the theater, and laugh until tears” without fear of ruining their makeup. But then, over the years, an army of art critics and historians spent oceans of ink speculating on the hidden meanings of that eye and those tears.
Few people know who Arthur Sasse (1908-1975) is, even though he was under contract with the UPI photo agency before ending his career as the official photographer of the Bronx Zoo. Yet, he took the most iconic portrait of Albert Einstein, reproduced millions of times on posters, T-shirts, mugs, and much more. It was even drawn in a cornfield near Ulm, Germany, the birthplace of the illustrious scientist.
It was March 14, 1951, and Sasse was among the paparazzi waiting outside the Princeton Club in New York on the evening of Einstein’s birthday celebration. Pushed aside by his colleagues, Sasse only managed to approach Einstein when he had already climbed into the back seat of a car, sandwiched between his wife, Marie, and the former director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University, Frank Aydelotte. So, he approached the window and asked him to smile for the camera. Instead, Einstein, who did not like the limelight, stuck out his tongue. Only one of the photo editors at the many newspapers to which the photo was sent decided to publish it (the others probably considered it too ridiculous and disrespectful: after all, it was the most famous Nobel laureate in physics of the century), but Einstein was so thrilled that he wrote to Sasse asking him to print many copies, and he even chose to crop the other characters himself to show only his face with the cheeky gesture, framed by his white and tousled mane. Furthermore, demonstrating a keen sense of humor, the father of the theory of relativity began sending them to friends and colleagues, always adding a message. In the one dedicated to Johanna Fantova, his archivist and personal assistant, he wrote, “This tongue reflects my position on current politics” (it was during the dark days of McCarthyism). On another, he wrote, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity. And about the universe, I’m not so sure yet.”
Neil Leifer (1942) is a legend among sports photographers. He has captured, among other things, 15 Olympics, both summer and winter, and four FIFA World Cups, with his images gracing over 200 magazine covers. However, Leifer took his most famous photo at the age of 23, when he was just hired by Sports Illustrated. It was May 25, 1965, and the event was the second fight between Muhammad Ali and then-champion Sonny Liston. With very short notice, the fight was moved from a large arena in Boston to a gym in the town of Lewiston, Maine, to ensure Ali’s safety, as he had changed his name from Cassius Clay in support of the Nation of Islam movement following the assassination of Malcolm X. In that gym, the seats reserved for the press were limited, and Leifer had to give up his seat for Herb Scharfman, the dean of Sports Illustrated reporters. Along with John Rooney of the Associated Press, he had to make do, positioning himself on the opposite side of the ring from most of his more prestigious colleagues. Fortunately, just 1 minute and 44 seconds into the fight, Ali knocked Liston down with what would become famous as his “phantom punch” right in front of Leifer and Rooney. The latter took an endless number of black and white photographs with 35mm Tri-X film, which were then published in newspapers worldwide (one of them won the World Press Photo award in the Sports category that same year). Meanwhile, during the fateful moment of the knockout, Leifer – who had chosen Ektachrome film, and therefore color – took only one picture with his slow Rolleiflex camera. However, it was only in 1999, in its edition dedicated to the photos of the century, that Sports Illustrated put Neil Leifer’s extraordinary photo on the cover, judging that the color, square format, perfect lighting on the bodies of Muhammad Ali and his fallen opponent, and the surrounding darkness were simply perfect. Iconic, even. Ironically, Herb Scharfman, who had forced Leifer to give up his seat before the fight, was immortalized in the photograph, going down in history (or at least in American television quiz shows) as the photographer who found himself between Muhammad Ali’s legs. As for Leifer, his motto became: “One shot, one kill.