I hate to be cliche and say, “a picture is worth 1,000 words,” especially as someone whose career is based on their written word. Still, I can’t help but admit there is some truth to the expression.
What words could possibly convey the dominant, magnetic force that was Muhammad Ali better than the famous shot of him flexing over a downed Sonny Liston? The photograph of fans running alongside Hank Aaron during his record-breaking home run trot is nearly as iconic as the slugger himself.
Just think of your most treasured sports memory — chances are a specific image immediately came to mind.
The most extraordinary moments in sports have often been captured in a single snapshot.
Even still, it wasn’t until I entered the journalism industry that I fully grasped the power of photography. Writing for one’s weekly college paper doesn’t quite prepare a young reporter for stepping into a newsroom with limited resources and one shared photographer — if that these days.
Responsible for my own photos for the first time, I realized just how powerful still images could be. Photos compliment a story, but the best photos are capable of telling a story in itself. This holds true even in the internet era where many will argue video is king.
But in sports, where athletes seemingly move at supernatural speeds at the highest levels, freezing a split second in time can make for awe-inspiring images.
Iconic sports photos aren’t captured every night, but they can be captured any night. Each excursion essentially becomes a lesson in Schrödinger’s photo.
That being said, I do believe there are a handful of tell-tale signs that a shot is one that will live on in reverence.
A season-opening basketball game isn’t typically the first setting that comes to mind when you think about remarkable photos, but when that contest is played aboard a U.S. Navy supercarrier off the coast of San Diego, it made for one of the only shots of college hoops in which you will ever see set to a backdrop of a sunset and radar tower.
These events might not be historically significant on paper, but they produce an image that one just doesn’t see often.
Think of the Fog Bowl — a relatively average NFL playoff game, aside from the thick haze that made it impossible to see 50 yards across the field. Or Dennis Rodman going full-on horizontal to save a ball.
BIG PLAYS, BIG MOMENTS
Other times, the moment is what makes the photo. David Tyree is far from a household name, but he became the focus of one of the most recognizable NFL photos since the turn of the millennium when he pinned a football to the top of his helmet in helping the New York Giants wreck the New England Patriots’ perfect season in Super Bowl XLII.
Nearly a decade later, Villanova’s Kris Jenkins cemented himself in college basketball lore, rising up for a national championship-winning buzzer beater as a North Carolina player desperately closes out on the shot.
When it comes time for a historic play, the camera doesn’t care who makes it.
There’s still something to be said for star power though.
A photo of Otis Smith participating in the 1988 dunk contest is cool. The photo of Michael Jordan soaring through the air as astonished fans stare wide-eyed in the background is hung up in the bedrooms of wonderstruck children everywhere.
All-time athletes in the element that perfectly embodies their particular brand of competitive spirit — Pete Rose’s furious dive into third base; Odell Beckham Jr.’s internet-breaking one-handed touchdown catch — are all but guaranteed to make for iconic images.
SUPERSTARS IN THEIR ELEMENT
A combination of sorts of the two previous categories; these are the best and brightest athletes on the biggest stages in their respective crafts.
Vince Young basking in the raining confetti of the national championship game, or Kerri Strug holding her pose on the Olympic stage with a grimace on her face and tape around her broken ankle — these are the no doubters.
One of the most recent entries on the ledger of timeless sports photos is legend Tiger Woods, clad in his classic red and black, shouting in exuberance with his arms raised after sinking the Masters-winning putt, surrounded by a sea of golf devotees.
It’s moments like those that writing cannot fully capture. Those are photos truly worth 1,000 words.