A staff photographer for LIFE for more than 20 years, the late John Dominis photographed . . . well, everything, and he made some of the most memorable pictures to ever grace the pages of LIFE. Among his most famous shots, in a career filled with phenomenal work, is a hair-raising portrait of a leopard and a baboon, seen mere moments before the huge cat kills its terrified prey. It’s an explosive, unsettling and mesmerizing picture. And it was staged.
Or, more accurately, it was not quite the utterly impromptu scene—encountered, fortuitously and unexpectedly—that one might expect to find in a classic photograph, especially from a photojournalist of Dominis’ rightly celebrated bona fides. Instead, the picture was set up, in accordance with the practices of the time.
Another LIFE great, the photographer John Loengard, interviewed Dominis in October 1993, and quoted him discussing this very picture in the book, Life Photographers: What They Saw (Bulfinch Press, 1998):
Does the fact that this extraordinary image is not, in today’s terms, a purely naturalistic feat of photojournalism somehow detract from its power? Is the leopard’s implacable strength any less formidable, or its lethal grace any less awe-inspiring? Is the photograph itself, technically and aesthetically, any less impressive when we learn that the circumstances under which it was made were—even in part—manufactured?
We don’t have the answers to these questions. But we feel they’re worth asking. We also take John Dominis’ word for it when he says that he made the picture in good faith, and not with the intention to somehow deceive, or put one over on the viewer. In the end, the harrowing, beautiful photograph he made has earned its longevity.
Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com