Tag Archives: behind the scenes

Best Magazine Assignment Ever: Neil Leifer’s 1984 Olympic Odyssey Around the World

In honor of this year’s London Games, LightBox has retrieved one of TIME’s most-prized portfolios: Neil Leifer’s timeless portraits of athletes created during a year-long project for which the photographer traveled to 13 different countries to create a groundbreaking collection of images that would appear in TIME’s preview of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

It’s hard for modern viewers, accustomed as we are to photo-shopped composite images, to appreciate the effort it took to create the photographs in this essay. Just the logistics of transporting the athletes from their training areas to the picture postcard locations, whether it was the Great Wall of China or the plains of Africa was a challenge. “I proposed photographing athletes around the world in front of the picture postcard image of their nation—an Egyptian at the Pyramids, a Russian at Red Square, Indian athletes at the Taj Mahal,” Leifer said. “[Then-managing editor] Ray Cave just looked at me like I was crazy. He said, ‘do you know how much that’s going to cost me?’”

(For daily coverage of the 2012 Games, visit TIME’s Olympics blog)

But a few days later, Cave gave the go ahead for Leifer to spend a year traveling from continent to continent for this unprecedented photographic quest.  “It could have been done at a fraction of the cost,” says Leifer. “We could have had TIME’s bureaus get the best athlete in each country and then have good local photographers do this. But you don’t get a continuity of approach that you’d get with one photographer.”

So with as much secrecy as possible to prevent the competition from catching on, Leifer and his assistant Anthony Suarez, started their journey. In those pre-internet, pre-email days, the magazine had a vast global network of more than two dozen bureaus to help wrangle athletes in each country and to cope with visas—no easy feat in a period when there were inherent political sensitivities in negotiating with countries like the Soviet Union or East Germany while an Olympic boycott brewing.

“It took weeks to set up each shoot,” says Leifer. “And there’s not a single one of these pictures where I use any artificial lighting.” Leifer says he spent days at the Parthenon figuring out how to get the best light to get the image ofworld champion in javelin, Sophia Sakorafa of Greece standing on a broken column, javelin raised in front of the ancient ruins. “I wanted her to look like she was on a Greek urn.” And so she did—without a bit of digital help.

“Today you could do half this thing on the computer,” Leifer explains. “You would take a Japanese gymnast and get rid of the background and put Mount Fuji there.” Instead, to get  the shot of gymnast Koji Gushiken in front of that famous white peak, Leifer had bring a cherry picker to the perfect spot and get a crew to hang the rings from the top. And finally, convince a nationally-prized athlete to mount that unusual apparatus and pose.

For the cover photo of American track star Carl Lewis jumping in front of the Statue of Liberty, Leifer hired a tugboat to take Lewis out into New York harbor. “Sure, maybe you could have photographed Carl on a trampoline in a studio and maybe it would have been more perfect, but the fun was doing it live and being there,” he says. And it is true that there is some unquantifiable about seeing these athletes actually in front of landmarks that so define their nation. It’s something a studio shot can’t match.

The most resounding no he got as far locations were concerned was from the then-communist government of East Germany which refused to let him photograph swimmer Kristin Otto in front of the Berlin Wall—a sore subject in 1983, just four years before president Ronald Reagan demanded that Russian leader Gorbachev “tear down this wall.” So instead, we see Otto in front of the soot-covered columns of Germany’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The result of Leifer’s efforts is a time capsule, not just because of all that has happened in the nearly 30 years since these images were taken—from the fall of the Soviet Bloc to the rise of China as a global superpower—but because projects of this scope, time frame and cost are even more rare than they were then.

Leifer, who will be 70-years-old in December, pivoted away from still photography in the late 90s (after racking up more than 200 cover images for TIME and Sports Illustrated), and is now focused on documentary filmmaking. But he will be back on the Olympic beat at the 2012 games in London with an on-site studio fromwhich he’ll make portraits of this year’s Olympians for NBC and Sports Illustrated.

Neil Leifer was a staff photographer with TIME, Life and Sports Illustrated. See more of his work, both in film and photography, on his website.

Behind the Cover: Capturing the American Dream

To define the American Dream in words is simple enough: “the perennial conviction that those who work hard and play by the rules will be rewarded with a more comfortable present and a stronger future for their children,” writes Jon Meacham in this week’s cover story. To capture the American Dream in one image is a trickier task.

“There were so many ways to show the American Dream, from imagery of people coming over to America by boat and seeing the Statue of Liberty to the dot com era and everything in between,” says Jeff Minton, who photographed this week’s cover. “Ultimately, we went with a more simple approach—showing the perfect lawn, and letting the viewer imagine the broader implications that the picture might represent.”

That perfect lawn was actually a sod farm located about an hour outside of Los Angeles. After hoisting his camera onto a crane, Minton controlled the digital capture from a tent 40 ft. below, where he set up different vignettes with models and props within the frame of his lens. “This kind of image would have been easy to composite together with stock images,” he says. “But it seemed like such a romantic idea—much like the American Dream—to actually photograph different scenes by camera.”

Jeff Minton is a Los Angeles based photographer. See more of his work here.

MORE: Read this week’s cover story on the American Dream

Behind the Cover: America’s Undocumented Immigrants

In Spring 2010, four undocumented students trekked 1,500 miles from Miami to Washington to press passage of the Dream Act, a bill that would offer a path to permanent residency for immigrants who came to the country as minors and achieved certain educational accomplishments. Moved by their courage, Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist who was part of the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize winning team for their coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting, revealed that he, too, was an undocumented immigrant in an essay published by the New York Times Magazine last June.

A year later, Vargas finds that immigration in America has seen little progress, as he writes in this week’s TIME cover story. On the cover, photographed by Gian Paul Lozza, Vargas stands before 35 other undocumented immigrants living across the country. “They’re living in America—but only in the shadows,” Lozza says. “They’re very much in the dark.”

It was important for TIME’s photo editors to show just how many cultures are represented by America’s undocumented immigrants. ”They come from so many different countries, religions and backgrounds,” Lozza says. “We wanted to bring that diversity to the light. This is not just a problem for Latinos, as we hear about often, but for every culture from around the world.”

It was a poignant topic for Swiss-born Lozza. “For me it was fun to see how motivated the kids were, and how much they wanted to learn,” he says. “They have dreams of being teachers, doctors, lawyers—it was fascinating that they all want to do something for other people.”

Read more on Jose Antonio Vargas in this week’s issue of TIME.

Gian Paul Lozza is a photographer based in Zurich. See more of his work here.

America’s Last Living POW: Christopher Morris Photographs a Family in Waiting

During the ten and a half years that Americans have been fighting in Afghanistan, as tens of thousands of troops have rotated in and out of the combat zone, only one soldier has ever been captured by the Taliban. His name is Bowe Bergdahl, and since June 30, 2009, he has been America’s last living Prisoner of War.

Bowe Bergdahl grew up on a dirt road that winds through a narrow river valley a few miles outside of town of Hailey, Idaho. The town of about 8,000 guards the highway to the ski resorts of Sun Valley where billionaires and movie stars spend their ski vacations. Bowe’s mother, Jani, home schooled him and his older sister, and Bowe spent years studying martial arts and fencing, becoming particularly accomplished at the epée. After a period of wandering, Bowe joined the Army at age 22, and soon after completing his training shipped out for Afghanistan. “He saw Afghanistan as a humanitarian mission,” Bowe’s father Bob says. “It was the highest ground for an American soldier.”

AP Photo/IntelCenter

This image provided by IntelCenter Wednesday Dec. 8, 2010 shows a
framegrab from a new video released by the Taliban containing footage of a
man believed to be Spc. Bowe Bergdahl, the only known American serviceman
being held in captivity in Afghanistan, a group that tracks militant
messages on the Internet said Wednesday.

After their son was captured, the Bergdahls kept their silence. Intensely private, devout Presbyterians, they chose to work behind the scenes to try and bring their son home. But a week ago, an interview Bob had given was published in a local newspaper. It said that he was frustrated with the government for not doing enough to bring Bowe home. Bob decided to break his silence. “We do not want the American people to think we are dissatisfied with the way our government has proceeded,” Bob says. “The problem is this is extremely complex. It involves several different parties—state actors and non-state actors. This is going to be difficult to reconcile, which is why we believe diplomacy for the hostages—and Bowe’s not the only one, there are other hostages—negotiations, diplomacy are the window of opportunity here.”

This week’s magazine includes a feature on the efforts to bring Bowe Bergdahl home, told from Hailey, Washington, and the rugged mountains of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Acclaimed photographer Christopher Morris, who has documented combat and statesmanship alike, traveled to Hailey to photograph Bob and Jani Bergdahl. “They seemed very strong. They seemed to have a lot of faith in their son,” Morris says. “Where he was raised, in a mountain culture, it would be something for him to relate with his captors.”

But raising awareness about their son’s imprisonment isn’t the only goal now that the Bergdahls have broken their silence. Bob Bergdahl wishes to create a “national awareness of the war in general–a national awareness of people, knowing that life and limb is suffering in Afghanistan,” he says. “This nation is at war and it doesn’t seem like people are paying attention. That’s just not acceptable.”

Read more: Bring Our Son Home

Behind the Cover: Animal Friendships

To shoot this week’s TIME cover story about animal friendships — which you can read here — photographer Catherine Ledner called on years of experience of hanging out with cute critters, including her work on two books of animal photography, Animal House and Glamour Dogs. But this shoot offered something new, even for the animal pro. Most of Ledner’s work involves pictures of singular animals, while TIME’s portfolio features animal pairs. “I had to make sure that the dogs that were coming were actually friends,” she says.

With that criterion in place, Ledner found that shooting pairs of animals was no more difficult than shooting them one at a time. Like human models, the animals brought their own personalities to the set and Ledner was able to capture the interplay of those forces. Also like human models, the animals brought entourages (a.k.a. trainers) who kept the stars focused on the task at hand—and who conveniently stepped aside when Ledner wanted to let her subjects off the leash, so to speak.

But unlike human models, the animal managed to make the group shots look effortless. “If you’re shooting a group of people, you have an agenda of who you want looking in the lens and who you don’t,” Ledner says. “To get everyone to look good at one time is harder than it is, I think, when you have a bunch of animals.”

Which is not to say that the photographer’s sessions with her animal models were all fun and games. Ledner—who owns three dogs, two cats and four rabbits, but does not frequently photograph her own pets—says that animal photography requires putting cuddliness aside. While people may get relaxed and happy with background music and a festive mood, quiet is important to help a dog (or a bird or a rabbit, as the case may be) maintain his concentration. Luckily, almost all of the animals that participated in TIME’s cover shoot were seasoned professionals. One dog named Billy had sat for Ledner twice in the past. The only non-professional at the session was the rabbit, who was, in fact, a real friend of Billy’s. “The rabbit was so docile. It would let the dog put its head smack dab on top of it. There was just total trust between these animals,” says Ledner. And the photographer was hardly upset about shooting an amateur model: “The bunny’s only six weeks old—and how can you be a pro bunny?”

Catherine Ledner is an American photographer based in California and author of two books: Animal House and Glamour Dogs. See more here.

Read more in the magazine: The Science of Animal Friendships.