A little more than a year ago, 50 of the world's finest photojournalists received a somewhat unusual proposal from fellow photographer Rick Smolan and his partner, David Cohen.

In 1984, Smolan noted in his letter, Hawaii would be celebrating its 25th anniversary as a state. "Our idea," he wrote, "is to create a special book for this Silver Jubilee celebration. To do this, we want to position fifty of the world's best photographers throughout the Hawaiian islands and to give each photographer the same 24-hour period to capture a typical Hawaiian day on film."

Everyone accepting the proposal would be paid an honorarium of $350, an $800 portable computer and their expenses, including transportation to, in and from Hawaii. The fruits of the photographers' combined efforts would appear in a book, A Day in the Life of Hawaii ("DITLOHA for short").

Of the 50 invited, about 60 showed up. "Word got around," says Cohen, 29.

DITLOHA -- and Smolan and Cohen's earlier A Day in the Life of Australia -- are unusual, says Cohen, for a number of reasons. Among them:

* "We are creating a visual time capsule, something that people can hold in their hands 40 years later and know that this is what it was like to live in this particular place at this particular time."

* "No picture is 24 hours older or younger than any of the other pictures in the book. It's not like taking pictures out of a stock library."

* "We ask the photographers to try to make extraordinary pictures out of ordinary events, to capture moments that people ordinarily wouldn't be interested in but which you make spectacularly interesting through their artistry."

The Hawaii project began around six months before the actual shooting. Smolan and Cohen were approached by Sheila Donnelly, a Hawaiian publicist. She had seen the duo's Australia, which documented people, places and events in that country over a 24-hour period. Would they like to do the same thing in Hawaii?

The answer was no: "Australia took three years to do," says Cohen, a former director and managing editor of Contact Press Images, a photographers-owned photo cooperative based in New York. "It required crawling across numerous boardroom floors on our knees, begging for money. After we finished with it, we never wanted to hear the term 'A Day in the Life of . . . ' ever again."

Donnelly, in true public relations style, wouldn't give up. " 'You come out here at no obligation,' she countered. 'If after a week you're not in love with the place, you go home. If you are, then you have to do the book.' "

"Who are we to turn down a free trip to Hawaii?" says Cohen. After a week there, including a helicopter trip around the island of Kauai, they were hooked, particularly with the knowledge that they would be in the islands -- planning and doing the project -- for the better part of six months.

A good deal of planning went into DITLOHA, notes Cohen. Before they could actually shoot the project, they had to research potential locations for their photographers, and, just as important, come up with the necessary money.

They ended up with a 140-page research paper outlining the entire project, including each photographer's assignment. ("Anyway, when they got here, the photographers went out and shot whatever they damn well pleased," Cohen says.) In one three-week period alone, Cohen and Smolan needed to -- and did -- raise approximately $400,000 in cash alone, and $250,000 in rooms, cars and airline transportation.

The photographers came in from all over the world for shooting on Dec. 2, 1983. Cohen and Smolan knew most if not all of them, so the gathering was much like a raucous college reunion. "What kind of job can you have that allows you to bring all your friends out to Hawaii, first-class, in December?" asks Cohen.

Along with the still-picture photographers, Smolan and Cohen picked a different team to do a photodocumentary for a TV special. (The feature will air at 10 p.m. Sunday on Channel 26.)

"My view originally," says Cohen, "was that we wanted to do a documentary with people who really understand photojournalism, put them in an unostentatious position and let them capture the photojournalists at work. I've never really seen a good documentary of photojournalism yet. What it basically is is hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of terror."

Dave Burnett, Cohen's candidate for "best working photojournalist in the world today," also was on the documentary team, along with double Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Stan Forman, who also is "very good with a video camera."

Other prominent photojournalists (plus their affiliations and nationality) whose work appears in DITLOHA include: Eddie Adams (Time, Associated Press; U.S.); William Allard (National Geographic, Life, Sports Illustrated; U.S.); Arnaud De Wildenberg (Paris-Match; France); Michael Evans (Time, President Reagan's personal photographer; Canada); Donna Ferrato (Life, Fortune, Newsweek, Bunte; U.S.); Diego Goldberg (Sygma Photo Agency; Argentina); Dirck Halstead (UPI, Time. An American working from Washington, Halstead has shot 33 Time covers, more than any other individual photographer); Gerd Ludwig (VISUM Photographic Agency, GEO, Life, Zeit-Magazin, Stern, Fortune; West Germany); Alon Reininger, Contact Press Images; Israel), and Sebastiao Salgado (Magnum Photo Agency, Time, Paris-Match, Stern, London Sunday Times, Fortune; Brazil).

Among Washington-based photojournalists working on the project was Time magazine photographer Arthur Grace, 37. Grace, who has several photographs in the book, says working on DITLOHA offered participants a rare opportunity: "Not shooting photographs to please an editor, but to please yourself."

Grace, whose assignment was to photograph street gangs, found all the supposed gang members were "attending class in school. My project just fell apart." He bounced back, shooting, among other things, a trio of championship surfers, a 300-pound-plus Samoan living in a tent with his wife and seven kids, and, toward the end of the day, preparations for a typical native luau. "And," says Grace, "it wasn't a tourist production. It was an authentic, neighborhood event." His colleague, Maggie Steber, captured Grace, surrounded by a bevy of Hawaiians, during the preparations.

And how did Cohen find it working with so many top photographers? "The great egos of all time? I think photojournalism is one of the greatest forms of delayed adolescence ever," he says with a smile.

"Seriously, I like photojournalists because they maintain, at the same time, an incredibly jaded and incredibly naive view of the world. They're friends. That's the world I came from."

The photographers' shooting was "very strictly" limited to Dec. 2. "To cheat," says Cohen, "would destroy the whole idea of the project." A couple of days after the shooting, a group of picture editors began their task of editing the 64,800 photos down to a 400 maximum. Not every photographer was represented in the final selection.

"It's difficult to tell a photographer he didn't get that much in," says Cohen. "In the case of DITLOHA, we at least put something small in the back of the book. Some of the photographers just had a bad day, or it didn't work or they had great pictures that didn't go with any other pictures. That's difficult."

A Day in the Life of Hawaii (Workman Publishing, 224 pp., $40) is now in its fourth printing ("around 95,000 copies in print") and Cohen says it has been well-received, especially in Hawaii. ("They were flattered that photographers had come from all over the world to take their picture.")

Cohen notes that he and Smolan were naive about what was involved in doing such a book before they did Australia. While the book sold around 180,000 of 200,000 copies printed, Cohen says they lost money -- not the case with DITLOHA. Regarding A Day in the Life of Canada, coming out next year, Cohen asserts, "I think we'll make some money from it."

And the future? "I see an end to doing this within two years. There's another photojournalistic endeavor which will happen within two years which I hope will be quite grand, on a grand scale, if it all works. There are huge risks involved. Beyond that, there are some other, different books."

Looking back on DITLOHA, Cohen says things went surprisingly smoothly. "If you talk to the photographers, you'll have complaints, but if they didn't complain, they wouldn't be photographers. They'd be businessmen.