This weekend, Heinz Kluetmeier will become the first photographer to be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The longtime staff photographer at Sports Illustrated is undeniably hall-worthy. He’s shot iconic images of every major swimmer since 1970, from Mark Spitz to John Naber to Janet Evans to Matt Biondi to Michael Phelps, and pioneered underwater photography at the Olympics.
His career was much more than a life aquatic. Like many of his peers at SI, Kluetmeier [pronounced KLOOT-my-er] was a versatile craftsman who combined technical know-how, exhaustive preparation, and inventive artistry. He shot studio portraits and deadline-driven action pictures; he shot Super Bowls and speed skating. His flexibility reflected his background: He trained to be a photojournalist, not a sports photographer.
His two most iconic images — “Miracle on Ice” at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics and “The Touch” sequence of Phelps from the 2008 Beijing Olympics — share little in common beyond their Olympic settings. The former was shot from the stands with a hand-held camera using film; the latter was shot with a digital camera placed underwater and connected to a computer.
But a closer look reveals the singular talent that separates Kluetmeier from most other photographers. He is, at core, a storyteller. All pictures can tell us who won the game or the race, but Kluetmeier’s offer something more.
Now in his mid-70s, Kluetmeier has difficulty speaking due to a bad fall he suffered several years ago while working. I was able to talk briefly with him on the phone; we also corresponded via email with assistance from Bruce Wigo, the president and CEO of the Swimming Hall of Fame. Thankfully, he’s given numerous interviews over the years that help fill the gaps from our all-too-short conversation.
Like something Kluetmeier said several years ago to the Photo District News, which summarizes his philosophy as a photojournalist: “I think that technique and technical stuff is absolutely irrelevant to the picture in terms of what you do as a photographer,” he observed. “I think the most important thing is to have a vision, to have an emotional feeling, to care about what you’re photographing, and to have something that’s already there in your heart, in your eye.”
Kluetmeier was born in Berlin in the middle of World War II. He arrived in America at the age of nine, after his family moved to Milwaukee in 1952, knowing only how to say “yes,” “no,” and “thank you.”
While still in high school, Kluetmeier began working part-time for the Associated Press. He was sent to cover a story about a German freighter that rescued six Sea Scouts after their boat sprang a leak in Lake Michigan. He was supposed to translate for the German seamen, but ended up snapping a photo that was published in the paper.
He caught the shutterbug. Using a Nikon S camera that his parents bought him, he began freelancing for the AP and the Milwaukee Journal. One day, he drove to Green Bay while the Packers were in training camp. He recalled walking into the cafeteria at St. Norbert College with a camera around his neck, only to be accosted by coach Vince Lombardi.
“Kid, what are you doing here?” Lombardi asked.
Kluetmeier explained that he was assigned to take pictures of Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, and Jim Taylor for the AP. Lombardi turned and shouted, “Starr! Taylor! Hornung! Get over here! This kid wants to take some pictures of you guys!”
“I couldn’t believe my luck,” Kluetmeier said. “You can’t imagine something like that happening today.”
His father cautioned Heinz about pursuing photography as a career, so Kluetmeier went to Dartmouth College to study engineering. He kept shooting all the while, stringing for AP during the school year, and for the Journal, AP and Life magazine in the summer. He dutifully took an engineering job after college, but his wife saw how unhappy he was and encouraged him to follow his passion. So he quit to go to work for AP and the Journal and pulled together his portfolio.
In 1969, he joined the staff at Time Inc. Bankrolled by the company’s then-unlimited expense account, Kluetmeier joined with Neil Leifer, Walter Iooss Jr., John Iacano, and others in exploring the boundaries of photojournalism in the pages of Life, Time, and Sports Illustrated.
Kluetmeier worked for both Life and Sports Illustrated until 1973, when he joined SI fulltime after Life was shuttered. He served two stints as the magazine’s director of photography, but he relished being in the field. He racked up more than 100 covers, including Lynn Swann’s astounding catch in Super Bowl X, shot from the sidelines, that is arguably the defining action picture from the first decade of the Super Bowl, and the star-spangled portrait of daredevil Evel Knievel before his infamous Snake River jump.
His first Olympic experience came in 1972, at Munich, which brought Kluetmeier back to his birth country. Swimming was the marquee event due to Mark Spitz’s effort to win seven gold medals. Kluetmeier had worked with Spitz as early as 1970 and shot him for the cover of SI’s Olympic preview issue: a portrait of the mustachioed swimmer beaming from the water.
After Spitz won his final race, his teammates carried him aloft on their shoulders. Kluetmeier shot the celebratory scene and then joined Spitz and editor Jerry Kirshenbaum for dinner. They returned Spitz to the Olympic Village late in the evening; news broke in the early morning that Black September terrorists had broken into the Israeli quarters, killed two team members, and taken 11 athletes and coaches hostage.
“When we dropped Mark off there, we had no idea what was happening,” he later told Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. “Can you imagine what it would have meant for those terrorists to have seized a Jewish-American who had won seven gold medals?”
Eight years later, Kluetmeier shot three Olympic covers in the span of four weeks for the 1980 Winter Games, including a magnificent photo of speedskater Eric Heiden in his golden suit that was the highlight of SI’s Olympic preview issue. (Heiden would sweep his events en route to five gold medals.)
But it was the last of Kluetmeier’s covers from those Games that continues to resonate today. The U.S. hockey team held the home-ice advantage in Lake Placid but were still huge underdogs. The squad was comprised of collegians—NHL stars were not allowed to participate in the all-amateur Olympics back then—while their Cold War rivals, the Soviet Union, was a dynastic powerhouse of state-sponsored Red Army players who had won the last four gold medals. In an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden three days before the opening ceremony, the Soviets crushed the U.S. 10-3.
The teams met in the first game of the medal round, and the atmosphere was especially charged because the contest took place just two months after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (which would lead to widespread U.S.-led boycotts of that summer’s Moscow Olympics). The Americans stayed close, trailing just 3-2 heading into the final period.
Kluetmeier spent much of the game situated in an elevated area reserved for photographers. He also set up two remote cameras in the rafters high above the nets. But sensing that he needed to be closer to the ice, between the second and third periods he arranged to shoot from a spot that he later described as “the best location” to get the crowd and the action in the same frame: the TV platform that was situated about 10 rows behind the U.S. bench.
“I got to the location on the ABC platform about halfway into the third period,” he said. “I was standing next to Steve Fenn, the ABC photographer.”
What transpired next was unanticipated dramatics. The U.S. scored two goals on backup goalie Vladimir Myshkin to lead 4-3, the last tally by captain Mike Eruzione, then held off the Soviets’ desperate counter-attack over the final 10 minutes of the game, until in the closing seconds TV announcer Al Michaels uttered, “Do you believe in miracles? YES!”
When the final horn sounded, the American players tumbled onto the ice to mob goalie Jim Craig by the net closest to Kluetmeier. Some 8,000 ecstatic spectators—witness to perhaps the greatest upset in Olympic history—filled the Fieldhouse with chants of “USA! USA!”
Kluetmeier and his Nikon F1 were perfectly positioned to shoot the joyous, patriotic aftermath. The most difficult decision he had was what lens to use: the 300-millimeter f/2.8 or the 180-mm. “There was a risk that by using the 300 I might have missed something,” he told me.
He went with the longer lens, hand-held with a pistol-grip trigger, and “it brought everything tighter and made a better shot,” he said, without sacrificing emotional impact. He cycled through two rolls of 36-exposure film during the merriment.
The resultant photo, he said, is all about “location, location, location.” That one fan happened to be waving an American flag behind the goal was “dumb luck, but once I saw it, I made sure it framed the celebration.”
As for cameras he’d mounted above the goals? Those images couldn’t capture the unbridled emotion that Kluetmeier conveyed with a manual camera. As he told an interviewer for the Photo District News, “the best pictures almost invariably come from the camera you hold in your hand because you can react and adjust and change and frame and give the photograph a different context by just changing the way you take the picture.”
The “Miracle on Ice” appeared on the cover of the March 3, 1980, edition of SI, with the fan’s American flag neatly obscuring the “US” in “Illustrated.” Its most striking aspect is that the image stands alone, without a headline or caption—just one of two SI covers since 1955 to carry that distinction. “The picture said it all: USA Wins!” Kluetmeier said.
“Miracle” was reprised at the end of the year, when the magazine voted the U.S. team as “Sportsmen of the Year.” In 2014, it was voted the “Most Iconic Cover” in the 60-year history of the magazine.
The moment is often mistakenly linked to the gold medal. Of course, the U.S. had another game to play in the Olympic tourney. They again trailed in the third period before rallying to defeat Finland, 4-2, to clinch the gold medal. If they had not won the finale, Kluetmeier’s “Miracle” might have been an afterthought.
Not every one of Kluetmeier’s Olympic efforts ended in success. At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, he set up above the diving board to photograph the 3-meter springboard event from that vantage point. But just as Greg Louganis was prepared to dive, South Korean security guards summarily escorted Kluetmeier from his spot.
Louganis’s next attempt was a disaster. He misjudged the timing on a reverse somersault, smacked the back of his head on the board during his descent, and emerged from the water bleeding. A stitched-up Louganis came back to win the gold medal; he later revealed that he had been diagnosed as HIV-positive right before the Games. Two photographers, Richard Clarkson and Brian Smith, recorded the head-banging incident from the side angle. But Kluetmeier would have had the only overhead shots of that dramatic moment, if not for the over-zealous guards.
Kluetmeier’s affinity with aquatics dates back to his teens, when he joined the swim team at Custer High School. In 1988, just before the Seoul Olympics, he published a monograph of swimming images; Swimming remains the only published collection of his sports photos. Four years later, he took on the biggest technical challenges of his career: shooting underwater at the Olympics.
Kluetmeier and other photographers had long faced obstacles at international swim meets like the Olympics. Confined to one area of the pool deck, their action pictures invariably featured lots of churned-up water and several indistinguishable capped heads. Many of the best images came at the start of the race, as the swimmers dove into the water, or immediately afterwards, when they celebrated or despaired over their times.
What was missing were action pictures from the pool, what Kluetmeier has called “stroke shots.” In the early 1990s, building on the pioneering underwater work of photographers Coles Phinizy and John G. Zimmerman, Kluetmeier experimented by placing a camera encased in a waterproof housing at the bottom of the pool and using strobe lights above the water. He did surreptitious tests at the world championships in Perth to prove to himself (and FINA officials) that it was possible to shoot underwater without distracting the athletes.
He arrived at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics to what he described as ideal conditions: “a beautiful outdoor pool with beautiful light.” He loaded a roll of film into a Nikon F3 with a fish-eye lens, then inserted the camera into a housing packed tight with pieces of foam to hold it in place. He dove into the pool and placed the equipment 12 feet underwater. Pre-focused, the camera faced toward the sky; attached was a trigger cable that he could operate from the pool deck.
When Kluetmeier surfaced, a security guard with a machine gun told him to remove the equipment because “it might be a bomb.”
Negotiations followed, and Kluetmeier was allowed to proceed. The concept remained a crapshoot because so much could still go wrong. The housing might leak, or the battery might die. If the conditions abruptly changed, the exposure setting would be incorrect.
His impeccable preparation paid off: He produced a sublime picture of American Mel Stewart swimming to the gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly, what one critic described as “a surrealistic, from-the-bottom-of-a-fishbowl image,” with the scoreboard, red-blazered officials, and the Barcelona sky visible above the shimmering blue water.
A frenzy ensued. At the next Olympics, in Atlanta, every shooter worth his f-stop lobbied the IOC and FINA to place a camera in the deep. The bottom of the pool had become, Kluetmeier said, “very valuable real estate.”
He responded by upping the difficulty factor. Right before Atlanta, he shot a devilishly tricky split-water image of butterfly specialist Tom Dolan, with half his body submerged in the water and half above it, as he sped toward the camera. In Sydney he scored with an underwater photo that captured Gary Hall Jr. and Anthony Erwin touching simultaneously in their 50-meter free dead-heat.
In the 2000s, as film use decreased in the digital age, the new technology exponentially expanded the possibilities for underwater wizardry. Kluetmeier transitioned to digital with help from a young assistant named Jeff Kavanaugh. Together, they schemed to shoot Spitz’s heir apparent, Michael Phelps, and his quest to win eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Planning began as early as 2007. Kluetmeier and Kavanaugh built a tethered system and tested it at the world championships in Melbourne. They tinkered with this over the next year, including at the U.S. trials in Omaha, before settling on their equipment set-up.
Using a regular Nikon D3, they attached a specially made backplate for the housing. Two cables ran from the camera to the pool-deck: one was used to manually trigger the camera; the other was a data cable tethered to an Apple computer that gave Kavanaugh a live feed and allowed him to look through the lens and re-focus the camera. Another advantage was that the images downloaded directly to the computer instead of onto the memory card.
Kluetmeier’s experience paid off once they reached Beijing. He circled the 100-meter butterfly, the seventh of Phelps’s events, as the swimmer’s most vulnerable race. “It’s a shorter race,” he said afterwards. “People can thrash out...We thought he might get beat.”
Some 48 hours before the final, he directed Kavanaugh to place the camera, equipped with a wide-angle lens, at the bottom of the pool under the rope markers between lanes 4 and 5. That’s where he surmised that Phelps would be swimming in the finals.
“Heinz said, ‘There’s too much competition in the pool with the other cameras. We’re getting that spot right now before anyone thinks of it,’” Kavanaugh recalled.
The camera sat there for the next two days as Kavanaugh made last-minute adjustments per Kluetmeier’s direction. (Kluetmeier had minor surgery before Beijing and was unable to go in the water.) Sure enough, come the finals, Phelps drew lane 4. To his immediate right was his chief competitor, Milorad Cavic, an American-born dual citizen who was racing for Serbia.
Location, location, location.
Cavic, a pure sprinter, took the early lead. After the turn, he maintained that edge. It looked like Phelps was beaten as the two approached the finish and surged to the touchpad.
To the naked eye above the water, it appeared that Cavic had nipped Phelps and prevented the gold-medal skein. But when the results were posted, spectators at the Water Cube as well as the enormous TV audience were shocked. Phelps was declared the winner with a time of 50.58, beating Cavic by 0.01, the smallest measurable margin. Serbia immediately filed a protest.
The most compelling visual evidence of Phelps’s improbable victory came from Kluetmeier’s underwater camera. With Kavanaugh firing the motor drive at eight frames per second, a sequence of some nine images showed Phelps employing a chopped underwater stroke in the final yards to overtake Cavic, hit the touchpad with sufficient force to register on the timing system, and snatch victory from defeat.
Immediately afterwards, Kavanaugh showed Kluetmeier that they’d captured the epochal moment in a way that had never been seen before. “I can’t believe [Phelps] won,” Kluetmeier recalled thinking. “I can’t believe we got the moment of the touch to prove it.”
Super-slow-motion TV replays confirmed the result. Serbia withdrew its protest, and Phelps’s victory was deemed official. He later won his record eighth gold medal, surpassing Spitz after 36 years. “The Touch” became this generation’s “The Catch.”
In a sign of the times, the pictures first appeared on the magazine’s website. Later, when the images were published in Sports Illustrated, the credit line read: “Photo by Heinz Kluetmeier and Jeff Kavanaugh.”
“Technically, yes, I shot the photo,” Kavanaugh said. “But Heinz is the only reason we took that picture. It was Heinz’s foresight that put us there in the first place.”
“Touch” was Kluetmeier’s crowning achievement. He went on to work at the 2012 London Olympics, where another one of his underwater photos, this time of Ryan Lochte, grabbed an SI cover. That was the last Olympics he covered; he called it a career with the magazine not long afterward. Today, he splits his time between New York and Florida.
His entry into the International Swimming Hall of Fame is a unique career-topper. As noted almost two years ago, halls of fame have been painfully slow to recognize the photographers and artists who have created enduring imagery and grown their respective sports. It’s obvious, for example, that one of Kluetmeier’s former colleagues, Neil Leifer, belongs in both the baseball and football halls of fame.
“I don’t think the photographers’ work has been appreciated,” the ISHoF’s Bruce Wigo said. “The selection committees are controlled by writers, former administrators who focus on athletes, and contributors who are officials and volunteers.”
To coincide with Kluetmeier’s induction, Wigo has curated a comprehensive exhibition entitled “Who Shot the Swimmers: A History of Swimming in America Through the Photographic Lens,” which will run from Aug. 26 through the end of the year. The exhibit includes Kluetmeier’s most iconic images, as well as works by pioneers Harold Edgerton (known as “Papa Flash,” the coolest nickname ever bestowed upon a photographer) and Peter Stackpole, and current masters Al Bello and Simon Bruty.
“Perhaps the exhibit will help other halls to recognize the contributions of photographers to preserve great moments for future generations,” Wigo said.
I’ve leave the last word to Kluetmeier, who was once asked about what makes for a great picture. His answer? “I think a great photograph is separated by the fact that people go back to it again and again. It’s the kind of classic that defines a moment in the world, in an event, and in life that’s universal. It’s the kind of thing that’s not just something that Americans can look at, or Asians or Europeans. It’s a picture that everyone can relate to on a personal level.”
David Davis is the author of Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku.