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.
On a recent expedition to the ancient city of Mycenae, world renowned archaeologist Dr. Jean Paljeanette III uncovered the postcards* the Greek hero Odysseus sent to his beleaguered wife Penelope while making the ten year journey back to their family home in Ithaca from the Trojan War, not all that far away. (These postcards were most likely delivered by a wise-cracking seagull.) Minutiæ is proud to present this last chapter in the saga made famous by Homer, the world's blindest successful poet.
*Please keep in mind some words were difficult to read or do not have modern translations, and substitutions are provided in brackets.
My Dearest Penelope,
Great news! Those [silly] Trojans fell for my old [stick-the-entire-army-in-a-giant-wooden-horse trick] and the war is over, at last! I set out several weeks ago, 12 ships carrying all the treasures that so recently belonged to the people of Troy. [But here's the bad news]. We were attacked by pirates off the coast of Ismaros; we fought hard, kept the [miniature] war going as long as we could, but in the end lost quite a bit of our treasure and more than a few of our men. Upset by the overly vicious attacks, we failed to see the oncoming hurricane. Yes, yes… I know I'm an expert on the high seas, but I was distracted, [you know], and torturing the one pirate I did manage to capture, you wouldn't believe how fun they are to torture, those pirates and the storm threw us off course. I'm sure we will find our way again soon, however; and I will be in your arms again, bestowing on you what jewels and finery the pirates did not take.
I hope you and my dear son, Telemachus, are well. I think of you daily.
With all the love of the gods,
THE LAND OF THE LOTUS-EATERS
The Land of the Lotus-Eaters may not [sound] to you the best place for a [pit-stop], but trust me it is quite a hospitable land to rest in when you have been rattled by some [devilish Long John Silvers]. Well, it is hospitable other than the dreaded cyclops, Polyphemus. He has quite a temper, actually, and for some time had captured me and my men—thus the reason for our further delay. We had to battle Polyphemus, blind him with a wooden stake, escape once again, [et cetera, et cetera]. It was [jolly good] fun, other than the wooden stake giving me a [nasty splinter], which took me several weeks to remove.
I am sure we will be home in [just a jiff] now. I look forward daily to seeing yourself and our beloved son, Tele, within the month.
Love in Athena,
THE HOME OF AEOLUS, KEEPER OF THE WINDS
Do not be fooled by the front of this postcard! Aeolus's homeland is not the beautiful paradise it is made out to be. True, he did take us in when that wretched Polyphemus caused us to be caught up in yet another storm—but how was I to know that his father was Poseidon? And it's true that Aeolus did bestow upon me three of this world's winds—but he would not be persuaded to give me the west wind, the wind that would have gotten us all home by [dinner] time tomorrow. It is also true that he warned me to be most careful with the winds as we set out (the first time) from his home. But how was I to know that my [idiot] crew might let out all the winds when I was napping?
I awoke from my [afternoon nap] yesterday just in time to see Ithaca, and our shining home up on the hill, and just in time to catch the [Neanderthals] letting the winds go wild, kicking up a typhoon or two and sending our ships off course for the [umpteenth] time. If truth be told, I am coming to enjoy battling these storms Poseidon keeps sending my way; he is a much better foe than those [half-witted] Trojans. It has been said that a man could not ever defeat a god, should not even attempt it, but sometimes, in the dead of night, I think it might be possible, given a bit more time. Alas, I must return to you…
We are back with Aeolus again, and, again, he [grumpily] refuses to help us out. So we will set out once more, without the help of any winds in my [rucksack], tomorrow. I am sure to be home within the month, barring any more disasters or battles I must fight.
My love to Tele,
Sorry it has been so long. We had this issue with the Laestrygonians recently: the Laestrygonians are giants, indeed, and cannibals at that. Battle them we did [of course], but they ate most of my men when we arrived here last month- and what they did not eat, they destroyed by rocketing boulders off of the tall cliffs of Telepylus. Of 12 ships, I have one left and very few men. Perhaps that will make it easier to not be further waylaid by the adventure's storms that seem determined to keep us from joining you, and our son, in Ithaca.
I know it's been a while… I got tied up with this woman—a witch goddess, really—Circe is her name. But it's not what you're thinking! Honestly, the year just flew by! I guess [time flies] when you're worrying over a witch goddess intoxicating you with drugs and alcohols, turning your men into swine, and generally enslaving you with love. Yes, love. Truth be told, Circe has something of a [crush] on me—and you know what a [flirt] I am. I never could resist a woman throwing herself at me. And after she returned my men to their human form, we all felt we needed a break from all the drama (the pirates, the storms, the giants, the cannibals, the Cyclops—in case you need a [refresher]) and the food and wine at Circe's are so good. The beds are quite comfortable, as well. Of course, I remember that the food and wine—and beds!—are good at home in Ithaca as well. So, well-rested, fed and happy, we are on our way again once more. The men are quite a bit more cheerful, given all the willing women on Aeaea, so you can expect me [soonish].
Hello to the kid.
THE ENDS OF THE EARTH
I'm at the ends of the Earth today ([long story, I haven't time to explain]), and who did I see? Why, the ghost of my dead mother! First of all, I would have liked to have known that my mother had passed. And, secondly, would you believe what she told me? You have been keeping suitors at home! Hundreds of them! Between the war and my return journey, I've been gone little over 12 years—13 at most!—And you have suitors at home? What our son must think!
I'm going to see what Circe has to say about this.
I admit I was a little harsh and a bit rash last time I wrote… but it has been eight years now, and I have had more than enough time for [introspection]. It's been a tough journey of late, though with my dear Circe's help, I was able to navigate past the Sirens, past the six-headed monster Schylla, past the evil whirlpool, Charybdis. And I passed them all without stopping for a fight! I hope [you know] how hard that was for me.
All was looking good until what few men I had left went and murdered Helios's sacred cows, though I had warned them not to. Helios was angered—of course; [you know] how irrational the gods can be. Same old story: Helios sent a storm and we were shipwrecked yet again. Only this time, all but I died. I washed ashore on Calypso's Island and Calypso was kind enough to take me in. That was 6 or 7 years ago now, and you might wonder why I did not attempt to escape until now. Honestly, Penelope, Calypso is a great lover—and for the first few years I was here, I was still so angry about your suitors, that I wanted to get revenge. The last few years, it was simply too hard to say goodbye to the life of luxury. Calyspo needs a lot of protecting, there were no end to the demons and gods and monsters that needed fighting off. (It is nice to feel needed, [you know]).
It is not as [fun] as you might think, being a war hero constantly under siege by the gods, the seas, the monsters and the women who become [infatuated] with you. And Calypso always had a glass of wine awaiting my return from the battlefield.
But I am [over it] now (Calypso may or may not have run out of wine), and on my way home, yet again. Expect me within a week or so, give or take a year. I will battle the suitors and take my place beside you and our dear boy, Telemachus, once again.
P.S. Do I have any more giant wooden horses [lying about]? I'm not sure how, yet, but I think it might come in handy when trying to break back into our home. Let me know! ♦