The Stories behind Some of the Most Striking Sports Photographs of the Last Century
Athletes have long held a mythical foothold in the public imagination as superhumans with quick instincts, confidence, and grace. And since nearly the dawn of photography, we’ve taken to immortalizing their images. “Sports photography is really about capturing the body in motion, and for much of art history, artists got it wrong,” says curator and photography expert Gail Buckland. “Until, that is, photography started to help to define and explain how the body moves. Sports photographers have to stop the body in motion, and they have pushed camera technology forward probably more than any other group.”
So while athletes have attracted the likes of
A new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, “Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present,” curated by Buckland and debuting alongside a book she wrote of the same name, reflects on the history of sports photography with unprecedented rigor and expansiveness—from a posed portrait of a 19th-century badminton player to Serena Williams tearing through the air at the 2004 French Open. Acclaimed fine art photographers, from Avedon to
David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Mr. Laing or Laine, 1843
“The portrait of Mr. Laing or Laine as a badminton player is a wonderful beginning to the story of sport photography,” Buckland writes in the book. This, the earliest photograph in “Who Shot Sports,” is the work of
Andy Warhol, Pelé, 1977
“Artists love photographing athletes because they are responsive with their whole bodies,” Buckland notes. That may explain why, in 1977,
Robert Riger, The Golden Arm, Johnny Unitas, 1958
“You are in the position for the picture you want,” Riger told Buckland, “because in your conceptual design of the action, balanced with the style and skill of the athlete at that moment of the game, there is only one position. Yours.” Major photography curators, football players, and coaches have long sung Riger’s praises—including John Szarkowski of MoMA, Hugh Edwards of the Art Institute of Chicago (who curated three shows of Riger’s work at the museum in the 1960s and ’70s), Vince Lombardi, and Johnny Unitas (pictured above). Riger began his career as an illustrator; in 1954, the year that Sports Illustrated was established, the magazine hired him on retainer as a freelance artist. “He started using photography in the ’50s just to help with his drawings,” Buckland notes. “In his day, he was probably considered the best sports photographer.” Between 1950 and 1994, he took over 90,000 photographs, cycling through eight cameras as technology improved.
Rineke Dijkstra, Forte da Casa, Portugal, May 20, 2000
“Boxing, bullfighting, and wrestling are subjects that artists who wouldn’t normally photograph sports gravitate towards,” Buckland says, nodding to precedents set by artists such as
Bob Martin, Serena, 2004
“Tennis photographers will always say, if you see the ball you didn’t get your picture,” Buckland explains. “You have to anticipate; it all happens so fast.”
Rainer Martini, High jump Bavarian Track and Field Championships, 2011
Donald Miralle Jr., Men’s Beach Volleyball match between Brazil and Canada, London Olympics, The Horse Guards Parade ground, London, 2012
“A lot of these photographers really wanted to be athletes themselves,” says Buckland, and points to Donald Miralle Jr. as a prime example. “He was a first-class swimmer; he spent half his life in the water.” It’s no coincidence that Miralle’s niche is now underwater photography and water sports. Just as notable, however, is his background in art—he studied painting, drawing, sculpture, and photography at UCLA, with
Krystle Wright, Freefall, Michael Tomchek Leaps off Castleton Tower (400ft) as Fellow BASE Jumpers Look On, Castle Valley, Utah, 2014
“It is kind of an old boys club,” Buckland admits, “but I wanted to include women.” The young Australia-based
“Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present” is on view at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, Jul. 15, 2016–Jan. 8, 2017.
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