Snapped: the flaming arrow at the Olympic Games Barcelona 1992
Sometimes you need a bit of luck. When you combine it with expertise, foresight and teamwork, the results can be spectacular. So it was with photographer Peter Read Miller and the capturing of Spanish archer Antonio Rebollo lighting the cauldron at the Olympic Games Barcelona 1992 Opening Ceremony.
“It was a total gamble and it just happened that it worked out very well,” Read Miller said of his definitive image, above, tracking the burning arrow as it flew through the Barcelona night sky past the Olympic cauldron. Through a combination of circumstances, the American was one of very few people who knew what was coming, ahead of time.
“Here’s the deal,” Read Miller explained. “I flew in from Los Angeles two or three days before the Ceremony started and I got to Barcelona in the late afternoon and was ready to have some dinner, a drink and go to bed, but Steve Fine, who was deputy picture editor (of Read Miller’s employer at the Games, Sports Illustrated), said, ‘No, we are going to go to the rehearsal of the Opening Ceremony’. And you know, he was the boss.”
As Read Miller pointed out, times were very different in 1992, pre-internet and the subsequent social media explosion.
“Now, the Ceremonies have all become ultra-secretive, but at that point it was just, ‘OK, we are going to try this and if you are here you see it and if you are not, you don’t’.”
The genuinely innovative approach – the cauldron at every preceding Opening Ceremony had been lit by hand – grabbed Read Miller’s and his boss’s professional attention.
“It was Steve and I combining our thoughts, we are very close friends. We often finish each other’s sentences so to speak and I think we both realised this had the potential for a great picture,” Read Miller said. “So we went looking for a spot to shoot it from. We went walking all around the stadium and found a spot that was not a photo position, but was somewhere we could mount a remote camera.”
My feeling is that not many people knew it was coming. There were not a lot of other photographers who came to that rehearsal and it wasn’t something they put out a press release on Peter Read Miller - Peter Read Miller
The exact nature of the spot they found – “a railing or something” – has been lost in the “midst of time”, according to the photographer. But what was key was that, with several days to go until the Ceremony actually took place, Read Miller and Fine kept very quiet.
“It was totally based on preparation and foreknowledge,” Read Miller confirmed. “My feeling is that not many people knew it was coming. There were not a lot of other photographers who came to that rehearsal and it wasn’t something they put out a press release on.”
On the night itself, the then relatively inexperienced Read Miller was in the pen with the rest of the international photographers. When the time came, he shot the archer beautifully (below) as did many of his peers, but crucially he had his secret weapon.
“I was firing the remote as he drew back the bow,” Read Miller confirmed. “It was kind of a ‘wing-it’, in terms of timing.”
The results were more than the photographer and his bosses had dared to dream of.
“I love the picture in and of itself, you have got the arc of the arrow, you’ve got the flame, you’ve got the great old stadium in Barcelona,” he said, before adding, “but I think it’s also the fact that I made that picture and almost no one else did.
“At an Olympic Games you are basically with 1,000 or 2,000 other photographers and you are all shooting basically the same thing from by and large the same spots, because they are defined for you. So, if you can make something that is out of the ordinary, that is a real sense of achievement.”
Of those thousands of fellow photographers just one other, the legendary USA snapper, David Burnett, got anything remotely similar to Read Miller’s famous shot.
“You know that if you ever get anything that David has got you have done very well,” Read Miller laughed. “It gave me a great start to that Olympics. It’s hard when you are working with the best photographers in the world. You definitely feel a sense of competition and you feel a sense of, maybe a bit of insecurity. So to nail that picture right off the bat on the first night gave me a great feeling of success and security that carried me through the Olympics.”
At an Olympic Games you are basically with 1,000 or 2,000 other photographers and you are all shooting basically the same thing from by and large the same spots. So, if you can make something that is out of the ordinary, that is a real sense of achievement Peter Read Miller - Peter Read Miller
Like many senior professionals, the Barcelona 1992 Games have stuck long in Read Miller’s memory.
“It was a great city,” he said. “The swimming was outdoors which was marvellous. We went out every night after the last action and something was always open. The people were wonderful and the food was good. It was a good time and it was really good for the Olympic Movement.
“It was one of my favourite Games, so far.”
No wonder, given what he achieved.