Every photographer’s had that moment, the panicked “I’m-not-going-to-get-this-shot” thought when a fleeting action whips in front of the lens and all the shooter can hope is that the camera will somehow pull through when the shutter is clicked. Sometimes the photo gods are smiling down; sometimes they aren’t.
Gregory Heisler‘s story of capturing Olympic diver Greg Louganis’ in-action portrait is a shining example of the former.
One of the aspects that many photographers need to keep in mind is the physical toll that staged action can often take on photo subjects—because a previous photographer had asked Louganis to dive over 100 times, needless to say the diver was pretty beat and wasn’t up for bending backwards to help Heisler with his portrait assignment for LIFE magazine. Louganis said he’d dive for him five times, and that would be it.
Not only did Heisler have a limited amount of tries to nail the shot, he was also shooting with black-and-white 4 x 5 infrared film, which he had chosen to use after hearing athletes describe their time in-action as a “dream-like, altered state”—but the complexity of the equipment would make Heisler seriously regret this decision.
Who would have known that after five dives and five repeated camera misfires, a 12-year-old boy would save Heisler from going back to the editors at LIFE empty-handed? After the boy asked Louganis for a photo together, the diver and the boy climbed to the boards and jumped off at the same time. And that’s the only shot, with both in the frame, that Heisler walked away with.
As many stories go, this one’s better heard from the primary storyteller, so check out the video for Heisler’s funny, suspenseful account.