The Story Behind an Iconic Photograph of Michael Jordan in Flight


You might recognize this iconic photograph of Michael Jordan flying through the air during the 1988 NBA Dunk Contest in Chicago. It was captured by renowned Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss Jr., a man who has created some of the most memorable photographs of athletes over the past fifty years (another of his iconic photographs is “The Catch“).

As a followup to its ranking of the 100 greatest sports photographs of all time, the magazine caught up with Iooss to find out about the story behind this photograph.

Iooss also shared the same story back in 2008 over at The Digital Journalist:

The problem with shooting the NBA slam-dunk contest was that you never knew how the players were going to dunk, especially Jordan. In 1997 he had twirled and dunked with his back to me. But by this time I knew him a little better. As he sat in the stands three hours before the contest, I said, “Michael, can you tell me which way you’re going to go, so I can move and get your face in the picture?” He looked at me as if I were crazy but then said, “Sure. Before I go out to dunk I’ll put my index finger on my knee and point which way I’m going.” I said, “You’re going to remember that?” And he said, “Sure.” So later, when they announced his name, I looked over to him on the bench and there was his finger pointing left. I got up and moved to the right side of the basket so I could see his face. He went left every time he dunked. On his last two dunks he ran the length of the court, took off from the foul line and slammed the ball through. On the next-to-last one he landed in my lap. On the last one I set up in the same spot. He looked at me as if to say, “Go left a little, give me some room this time.” And that was it, the picture was made: 1000th of a second frozen in time.

The story behind an iconic Jordan photo [Sports Illustrated via The Imaging Resource]

Image credits: Photograph by Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated

  • Duke Shin

    Holy balls, how does anyone jump that high?

  • brandon

    now that’s a great shot. that one in that top 100 isn’t nearly as good as this. sure this would be easier to get, it wasn’t during a game, you knew he was going to dunk, but i don’t care. this is better. great framing, with everything falling into place.

  • Leonardo Abreu

    Did he overdrive? ^^

  • Gil Gomes

    The pic is from 1995 and not 1988

  • Michael Zhang

    Hmmm. Thanks Gil. It looks like SI put the wrong date on their article.

  • hawk1500

    Yeah definitely NOT 1995…88 or 87, I think 87.

  • Max

    Story? What story? He just pointed the camera and clicked. Nothing more. Why do you always try to make the act of photography something so profound and deep when it is more often then not simply the act of obsessive compulsives clicking in frenzy to anything and everything that moves. There is nothing remotely profund going on here please stop trying to add non existent depth and meaning where there is NONE!.

  • Athan Raptis

    Because stories are everything. They are how we share our experiences. Sure, the image gives a meaning of it’s own, but the story gives context. I don’t feel like there is anything deep or profound about this image, story or not. But it is definitely interesting and quite fun to know that Jordan actively worked with a random sports photographer to get the image he was going for during a game in progress.

  • Jeremy

    If SI put 1995, it is a mistake. This is 1988.

  • Leonardo Abreu

    Btw, this was in 88.

  • michaelp42

    Not really sports as such though is it?

  • Borja Batalla

    Really? you are a poor fool to believe that?

  • Gil Gomes

    Looks like the photographer’s website is wrong, it was 1988 !

  • Max

    If my 5 year old neighbour sat ringside with a 1D Mark 4 and hosed down Jordan with 17,000 frames I’m utterly certain he’d get an iconic shot or 2 as well. There is no art or talent here at all..

  • Alex Szecsi

    How old this guy?

  • Alex Szecsi

    Is this a fuji xtra 400 because the reds are blow out…?

  • Javier S├ínchez

    Well… thank you for undermining years of experience, preparation and knowledge to a simple “point and click” status. You sure are ignorant.

  • Mansgame

    He was #45 in 1995 and it was his first year back after leaving for baseball so it’s definitely in the 80’s. 1/1000th of a second is really fast given the low light in the stadium so I’m curious what type of film was used. 800 film? Did they have extra lights in the arena than normal? Was he using a strobe (i see the hot spot on the upper corner of the picture) which in effect gave 1/1000th stopping power but overpowered the ambient? How did they do stuff without the high ISO abilities that digital cameras have now??

  • Djoulz

    the pic is not from 95 it’s from 88 as the slam dunk contest held place in Chicago. they hd three shots. Wilkins went first and made a 50, then Jordan went a got a 50 too. Wilkins went again and scored another fifty as Jordan scored a 47, then Wilkins scored a 45 and, on the pic above Jordan runs to score a 50 and wins the contest for the second time. check the score board behind 145 vs 97… In 95 Jordan wasn’t a competitor anymore. Harold Miner won against Isaiah Rider and Jamie Watson. Check your facts guys ;)

  • Michael Zhang

    Thanks. It seems like the web is confused regarding the date :) If you do a “jordan dunk” search for both 1988 and 1995 on Google Images, this photo appears. SI lists it as 1988 and the photographer writes that it was 1995. Looks like it was actually 1988, though. Thanks.

  • TSY87

    despite all the flak you are getting for your comment… I agree for the most part. Often times, the ability to get a shot like this is more dependent on being allowed baseline seats and a fast shutter rather than really having a plan… Small aperture, wide angle lens, fast shooting camera and prime seating can net you shots like this pretty easily id imagine.

  • James

    I believe what the photographer used was called a FILM camera. I’m sure you wouldn’t know anything about that and neither will your five year old neighbor.

  • jay

    c’mon, look at the shoes… clearly it’s ’88. he always wore the shoes of that year, and those are the 1988 jordan III’s. jeremy knows what i’m talking about :)

    that said… the haters in this string are idiots. could i have taken this shot? yes. could jeremy? hells yes. could i get the gig? not a chance. a lot of work and paying dues goes into getting a job like this. it can’t be overlooked. and it was on film… he had a few chances to get it right, and he did.

  • reds

    I nearly had one of those “someone is wrong on the internet’ moments reading your response Max. But I’ll sleep soundly now and not give it another thought. Why? Because someone who offers that point of view clearly hasn’t tried to get consistently good, never mind iconic shots at a sports event, wedding, live gig – whatever. Point and click…. ha ha. You’re showing your ignorance of the skill and practice involved. Constant machine gunning just gets you thousands of mostly mediocre images, with maybe a lucky one and pissed off editor. You crack on mate.

  • Janette Hamilton

    You know I am sick to death of you non-photographers and your assumptions that anyone can get the shot. I don’t care what kind of camera you give someone if they haven’t got a photographers eye they are NEVER going to get an iconic shot. A talented photographer could get a shot like this with ANY camera. The camera is not what does the work it just records what you point it at. It is the photogrphers eye that makes the photo and I seriously doubt your five year old neighbor has a photographers eye.

  • Keith

    It’s simply not true. You need to have it metered just right (maybe easier in an arena), the focus locked at the right place in fast action, know what shutter speed and aperture are going to get the effect you want, the composition interesting, and the white balance correct, as well as several factors that people seem to think ‘just happen’ inside the camera. And to the theory that you can just shoot a million frames and you’ll get lucky, that’s partially true; it’s amazing what you can get by luck, but getting the photo you’re trying to get is very different than getting lucky with just anything. Whatever your field is, if you’ve ever thought that people don’t know how much work and experience goes into what you do, you know how photographers feel about comments like this. If you’re someone who just points and clicks and thinks their photos are just as good, I’m guessing nobody discerning is paying you for your results.

  • keith

    I agree and would also add the Arnold Palmer quote “Some people say there is a lot of luck in golf. But the more I practice, the luckier I seem to get.”

  • Keith

    Amen. A number of times I’ve had clients decide to buy a camera for their organization and shoot events themselves to save money, and almost all of them have then called me again later. It’s a bad carpenter who blames his tools and a fool who credits them.

  • Keith

    Oops, posted this on the wrong comment. I’m on the other side! I would add that this is not random composition you get from fast shooting. His head is perfectly isolated and framed by the small black background for example, when 99% of shots would have it overlapping the lights and creating a distraction. His feet are evenly aligned in between seat sections, adding to the sense of height in a clear visual way. These little things matter. That said, if the photo doesn’t do anything for you, nobody can insist it’s a great image so to each their own.

  • Michael Comeau

    If you think this picture is simply a case of being in the right place at the right time and clicking, than you are moron. You really have no brain.

    Think about it. The greatest basketball player of all time cooperated with a photographer on a shot during a slam dunk contest.

    What does that say about Walter Iooss’ skill, reputation, and body of work that a notoriously obsessed-with-winning Michael Jordan decided to help him get a shot?

    You really think Michael Jordan would have just done this for anybody?

    Walter Iooss had already been a great sports photographer for DECADES when this was taken, and quite uniquely, built a rapport with Michael Jordan, and that’s why he got this shot. He wasn’t just a random guy on the sidelines with a camera that pressed the button at the right time.

  • TSY87

    haha, I realize you are on the other side… but the point I’m trying to make is that in order to get his head perfectly isolated in the black background really depended on the location he was able to shoot from. 10FPS will net you a TON of shots that will over lap with lights, distracting backgrounds, etc… but all you need is that 1 shot that doesn’t. I’m not necessarily saying that any monkey with a d4 or 1dx could get shots like this, but any photographer with at least the basic understanding of photography could get a shot like this given the right gear and the right location.

    Imagine this, if Walter Iooss Jr was sitting in the nosebleeds, or even just several spaces to the right or left, this shot would be VERY different. Location, Gear, and Basic photography knowledge is pretty much all it takes to get a shot like this.

  • TSY87

    have you ever seen a sports photographer take pictures? It’s definitely more about spray and pray and crop/compose later. So yes, gear matters for the FPS, LOCATION is a HUGE factor as most people cant get baseline seats to snap shots from this angle. I’m not discrediting that mr Iooss is a great photographer, i mean, he had to prove himself to get to where he was for that shot, but any competent photographer with the right gear and location could get that shot pretty easily.

  • Maria

    Mate, the photo you’re arguing about was taken in 1988. Remember then? There was no digital camera and the frames per second were decidedly less.

    A quick bit of googling shows that the first professional level autofocus camera only came out in 1988 (the Nikon F4) and it was also the first one with a built in motor drive – which is what gets you the frames per second). This absolute top end camera only got 5.7 frames per second. Of course, the photographer could hardly just keep shooting, as most films only had 36 exposures on them and between that time the photographer would have to change film (which, even with a decent workflow as I’m sure they would have, is time consuming).

    I think part of the point of this article was to show how much he went through to get to the right position, as in approaching him and asking him where to go, as well as years of experience where the best shot would be.

    Overall, I don’t want to argue with you too much, but I’m confused at why you’re browsing this website – it’s for photographers, which you don’t appear to be. Your knowledge of photography seems limited at best, which would be alright if you’d acknowledge this fact, but instead you seem convinced that anyone could get the same shot if they had the same access (not true). I hope you realise the preparation and skill that gets put into images like this before the end of this year.

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  • Spider- Man

    that is like asking a photographer how he/she takes such great photos. They are paid athletes. Their job it to work out and be better and better physically every year. SO think long and hard about your question and what he was paid to do…

  • pete n pete

    Please, tell me how great that Instagram filter made your breakfast look this morning.

  • Tim Mielke

    What an excellent story. As a sports photographer I would have never
    thought to talk to the star athlete. Last I checked, it never can hurt
    to ask. They can only say no.