|NAKED POWER, AMAZING GRACE|
|My managing editor at LIFE looked over his glasses at me. "So you can talk these people out of their clothes?" I gulped and said yes. "And you can shoot it in a way I can run it?" Bigger gulp. "Yes." |
"Okay, go do it."
I had this notion of celebrating the human form as it responds to the demands of sport by photographing, unadorned, the most magnificent representations of that form--the Olympic athlete. I wanted to see how the body reacts and develops in response to the demands of a variety of sports, from the sleekly powerful profile of Carl Lewis, to the massive bulk of super heavyweight lifter Mark Henry, to the outsized fencing arm of Cliff Bayer, which dwarfs his more "normal" left arm.
It was one of those moments as a photographer where you are going to succeed in wonderful fashion, or fail abjectly depending on how convincing and passionate you are about presenting your case to your subject, and then of course, how well you photograph it. I wasn't intending to shoot full length nudes of every athlete. I wanted details--arms, backs, hands, legs--as well as the entire form. The only rule--no clothing could be in the picture. The only thing that would grace the lens was the unaccompanied, unclothed, magnificent human machine.
The Olympic athlete has always been the ideal, the quintessential expression of human physical excellence. The word "Olympian" connotes power and grace, of course, but there is also an additional connotation of beauty. These people, through their dedication, unbelievably hard work, and constant striving for those precious extra millimeters of distance or hundredths of a second, become the best of us. They do all this work for the singular opportunity to explode onto the world stage just once every four years. There is great risk, and slim chance of success.
When published, this story became the only time in the history of LIFE that the magazine ran four different covers. The picture of Gail Devers won first place in portraiture at the World Press Photo awards in Amsterdam that year. Most importantly, to me, was that my editor, who took a big risk, felt the story worked, and gave the story room to breathe on the pages of magazine.
Lots of people reacted, most favorably. Some readers, of course, canceled their subscriptions. Katie Couric, then at the Today Show, had lots of questions for me, as did other TV and newspaper folks, which was a new experience. I had been a pretty good photog for many years up to that point, and no one but my mom noticed or cared. So I learned an interesting, if somewhat amusing lesson. If you want to get noticed as a photog, take the clothes off a bunch of famous people.