I guess we should start at the beginning. In this case, though, the beginning is really an end.
It was a Sunday in September, 1964, and Steelers’ John Baker had just delivered a brutal hit to the Giants quarterback, Y. A. Tittle. Tittle had been the NFL’s Most Valuable Player the year before and had taken his team to the championship game in ‘61, ‘62 and ‘63. (The Giants lost all three). At 38, he was an old football player. The hit that left him bloody and dazed, made it clear that the end was near.
Post-Gazette photographer Morris Berman was there to capture the moments after the hit. One of those photos became a hallmark of photojournalism.
Tittle himself understood the picture’s weight. “That was the end of my dance,” he said years later. “ A whole lifetime was over.”
Recently, Digs reporter and Post-Gazette photographer Steve Mellon unearthed Berman’s original 35mm negatives, long considered lost. The famous frame is the middle negative in a strip of three — frame No. 25. We scanned the entire strip and were surprised by what we found.
Before the now-famous picture is an image in which Steelers linebacker Bill Saul rests his hand on the bloodied quarterback’s shoulder. He towers over the vulnerable Tittle, yet his body language reveals a certain gentleness and concern. This frame, No. 24, captures a moment of empathy that seems to transcend notions of the modern-day NFL.
This is the picture published in the next day’s edition of the Post-Gazette. Frame No. 25 remained unpublished and unseen by the public until Berman entered the image in contests months later.
Upon discovery of Berman’s negatives, members of the Digs team immediately began the time-honored exercise of Monday morning quarterbacking. Was frame No. 24 with “the moment” between Saul and Tittle a better picture than the image of Tittle alone and on his knees? And what is it about frame 25 that makes it such an iconic image?
We decided to bring some other voices into the conversation.
The Post-Gazette’s Peter Diana has been shooting professional sports in Pittsburgh for decades — you may have seen his front-page picture of Martavis Bryant’s somersault catch this past Sunday. Diana says that, for him, frame 25 stands out. “I love the isolation, his hands on his knees, finally taking a breath, someone who left it all on the field,” Diana said.
Capturing a moment of isolation during a professional football game is incredibly difficult, given the crowded conditions on the field and along the sidelines.”It’s so hard to get a clean image,” Diana said. “I understand the argument about using frame 24 but #31(the Steelers player whose back dominates half of the frame) ruins the moment for me.”
One of the best photographers covering sports today is Elsa Garrison of Getty Images. She said she would stick with the photo of Tittle alone. “The feeling of defeat is more apparent … the frame selected is clearly the stronger picture,” she said. However, she said, the frame with Saul may have been considered a more obvious choice for a Pittsburgh publication, since a Steeler was in the frame.
Photo editor for Al Jazeera America Vaughn Wallace (a Pitt graduate and former Post-Gazette intern) said he gravitates to the moment between Saul and Tittle. “One can’t help but wonder what words were exchanged during that brief moment,” he said. Ultimately though, for Wallace, it comes down to available space for photographs in the next day’s newspaper. If there was room for it, a tight crop of Tittle alone would be the ultimate image of Steeler dominance.
Former Pittsburgh Press picture editor Bill Gugliotta agrees. “While the previous frame is certainly a nice moment and a fine image, Tittle’s face is a bit harder to see than the second picture. Tittle’s stunned, dazed expression and his isolation is what makes the second picture the better of the two,” he said.
We were starting to think that maybe photographers have a way of looking at images that is “different.” So to keep the debate alive, we invited Post-Gazette columnist (not photographer) Tony Norman to weigh in.
Norman acknowledged that the frame with Saul is a good one. It imparts a moment of empathy in the midst of a brutal game but it is “informational not iconic.”
The iconic photo stands out for him, as it has since for most since 1964. Norman sums it up, as only a columnist could: “Y.A. Tittle in isolation feels as much like a Rodin sculpture as it does a picture of a flesh-and-blood athlete trying to gather his remaining wits after a brutal take-down. It is particular to its moment and deeply existential, almost contemplative. Once cropped, it manages to transcend the game … Y.A. Tittle becomes Everyman/woman.”
So, which photo would you have published?