Visual Culture

The Stories behind Some of the Most Striking Sports Photographs of the Last Century

Artsy Editorial
Jul 7, 2016 11:25PM

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 Richard Avedon and Andy Warhol, the field of photography is indebted to photographers who have worked to advance technology in order to capture sports. Take, for example, 19th-century masters Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey, who used pioneering methods to achieve faster shutter speeds; or LIFE magazine photojournalist George Silk, who developed a portable photo-finish camera, allowing for greater access and dynamism; or Sports Illustrated photographer Heinz Kluetmeier, who used cutting-edge technology to capture the first images from the bottom of an Olympic swimming pool. “Now you have photographers setting up their cameras at the Olympics two weeks before the games start; they’re using very sophisticated new technologies,” Buckland says. “During the winter Olympics they used drones to follow skiers down hills; and now with GoPros, anybody can shoot their own athletic adventures. But the story starts in the 19th century.”

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 Rineke Dijkstra, are shown alongside highly skilled photojournalists. “In the sports world, except for maybe Walter Iooss and Neil Leifer, most people don’t recognize the names of the photographers, even when their photographs are very famous,” says Buckland. “It’s a story that isn’t about who scored the touchdown or who jumped the highest to make the best shot, but about the image of sports. And the really committed photographer understands what it takes to make a picture that lasts through time.” Below, we share the stories behind eight of the dozens of photographs included in the book and exhibition, a tiny fraction of the rich interwoven history of photography and sports.

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 Hill and Adamson, regarded by Buckland as the greatest practitioners of the calotype—“a paper negative that was ‘developed’ after a short exposure”—which was invented by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1840. She notes that this photograph, one of a series of nine owned by the Scottish National Library of Mr. Laing or Laine in various environments, picturing him posed with his badminton racquet and dressed for the sport, is among the most dynamic of the group. “There’s something about when you see yourself as an athlete; there’s an energy that is projected,” she says.

Andy Warhol, Pelé, 1977

“Artists love photographing athletes because they are responsive with their whole bodies,” Buckland notes. That may explain why, in 1977, Warhol captured a series of Polaroids of celebrity athletes. “These were important studies,” says Buckland. “Warhol himself didn’t know much about sports, but he worked with a collector, Richard Weisman, who was very knowledgable; between the two of them, they got all the major athletes.” Weisman commissioned the series and helped Warhol target a list of top athletes. They visited the athletes in their homes or invited them to Warhol’s studio, where he would pose them, add sports equipment, and choose their outfits. In addition to the legendary mononymous Brazilian soccer star, Pelé, pictured here, the series includes Chris Evert, O.J. Simpson, John McEnroe, Dorothy Hamill, Wayne Gretzky, and Jack Nicklaus, among others. “Warhol’s portraits prove athletes are much less comfortable engaged in a visual dialogue where the the attention is on their face,” Buckland writes. These Polaroids resurfaced later in Warhol’s career as silkscreen paintings in explosive colors.

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

Forte da Casa, Portugal, May 20 (B), 2000
Marian Goodman Gallery

“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 Picasso and George Bellows. The acclaimed Dutch photographer Dijkstra began a series in 1994 in which she took portraits of matadors as they exited the bullfighting arena. The unsettling works picture drained young men spattered with blood. Stains seep into their tailored jackets, disheveled neckties hang around their collars, and spent or dazed expressions shape their flushed faces. “The matadors came out covered in blood and exhausted—very similar to the mother,” Dijkstra told Buckland. Apparently drawn to the study of humans undergoing primal experiences and physical exertions, she created this series simultaneously with another in which she pictured mothers with their babies immediately following childbirth. She now asks museums to show the series together.

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.” Martin, who coordinates the official photography for Wimbledon, told Buckland that he considers the background of his image first, then positions himself accordingly. “I don’t necessarily choose where the action might be best,” he says. The British photographer dropped out of school at 16 and honed his photography skills early. He got his start in sports photography at Allsport photo agency, drawn to photojournalism and color photography, in particular, and went on to work at Sports Illustrated. His natural aptitude for the technical side of the discipline served him well. “Getting Serena flying through the air—seeing the ball, and her full extension—is a result of advancements in camera technology,” Buckland notes.

Rainer Martini, High jump Bavarian Track and Field Championships, 2011

German photographer Martini is gifted at photographing the high jump—capturing athletes in the fleeting moment when their bodies hover just above the bar, propelled by momentum, before gravity pulls them back to earth. “He photographs these high jumpers going over the bar and he gets the body in absolutely the most extraordinary position,” Buckland says. She likens Martini’s work to Aaron Siskind’s 1953 “Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation” series, in which divers are pictured in acrobatic positions midair. Martini cut his teeth in photography as a 10-year-old after his father built a darkroom in their home. Following the completion of mandatory military service in 1970, his career quickly took off, beginning with coverage of crimes and fires for a small photo agency, and leading to his first sporting event, a soccer match. He has photographed every World Cup and Olympics since 1972.

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 Sharon Lockhart and John Baldessari among his professors. Fresh from finishing his BFA, he, too, got a job at Allsport, quickly climbing the ranks there, and went on to work for Getty before going freelance. “My most successful photographs are pre-conceptualized,” he told Buckland. “Frame the scene. Start composing like a painting rather than chasing things and just capturing action.” This photograph of beach volleyball at the London Olympics is exemplary of this approach, especially as one notices that an artist is perched at an easel up on a rooftop directly across from Miralle’s vantage point.

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 Wright is skilled in outdoor adventure sports—rock climbing and paragliding, for instance—and these activities have led her to also become a skilled adventure photographer. Wright told Buckland that she believes women must “work harder than men” in the field. After years of studying photojournalism and working for The Sydney Morning Herald, she struck out on her own. Her photographs are sometimes the results of years of preparation and sketching, while other times they are more serendipitous. She often pictures figures from afar, set before majestic landscapes. Her expertise spans photography of various land and water sports—from mountaineering and BASE jumping to diving and surfing. Here, BASE jumper Michael Tomchek takes a 400-foot leap of faith from Castleton Tower, part of the famed Wingate Sandstone geologic formation in Castle Valley, Utah.

Casey Lesser

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.

Artsy Editorial