In Sophie Kirchner’s “Male Sport,” the Athletes are Women

The phrase “male sport” is a misnomer. Or so German photographer Sophie Kirchner demonstrates to viewers in her proud and intimate portraits of female athletes. Currently on view at Pictura Gallery, the images upend gender norms and show that femininity comes in many forms.

Viewers of “Male Sport,” Kirschner’s first exhibition with the gallery, might expect to see men. Instead women athletes, who play gendered sports—rugby, ice hockey, and water polo among them—fill the walls. That these sports are not, in fact, exclusively male as they are typically viewed—and that it is not unusual for women to bring the same level of passion and skill to them as their male counterparts—is precisely what Kirchner aims to convey. In her words: “For me it was all about showing women who do what they love. […] I was trying to point out that these women are not marginal, but that society is marginalizing them.”

This project is in keeping with Kirschner’s tendency to turn her lens on the socially disadvantaged, and use her camera to document and address social issues and challenging subjects. In this case, the underlying issue at hand is the burden of gender stereotypes. These are not the perfectly coiffed, painted, and corseted women trotted out in front of the cameras at glittery events or splashed across the pages of magazines, skin airbrushed to a high sheen. Rather, these are real women—and ones to be inspired by.

Instead of showing the women in the midst of competition, Kirchner chooses to photograph them immediately following a game. Stripped of their uniforms and other gear (except for the water polo players, who wear their swimming caps), they are shot from the shoulders up, straight-on, against monochromatic backgrounds. Their hair is mussed or pulled back tightly, their faces flushed by recent exertion. The eyes of the water polo players are bloodshot from the pool’s chlorine and droplets of water cover their skin. All of these athletes stare directly into the camera’s lens and, by extension, out at viewers, as if to steadily meet—and stop short—any questioning gazes.

Karen Kedmey

Male Sport” is on view at Pictura Gallery, Bloomington, Indiana, Feb. 6–Mar. 28, 2015.

Follow Pictura Gallery on Artsy.