Exhibitions: A History of Sports Photography, At Last

By David Schonauer   Wednesday July 13, 2016

Athletes and artists have a long history of collaboration.

Photo historian and curator Gail Buckland notes that in ancient Greece the finest artists celebrated the best athletes. The partnership continued through the ages, even as technology changed.  “Eventually, the mantle was passed to still photographers, who are masters of capturing the moment,” Buckland says.

She has a unique perspective on the subject: For the past four years Buckland has been delving into the history of sports photography. The result is an exhibition titled “Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present,” which opens at the Brooklyn Museum on July 15. The show is accompanied by a new book  from Penguin Random House.

Like her landmark 2008 exhibition “Who Shot Rock & Roll,” the new show covers a photographic genre that had yet to be seriously researched. Because of that, when Buckland began her work on the project she had to ask not only who shot sports, but also what sports photography is.

The time is right for a wide-ranging look at sports photography: Traditionally, notes Buckland, photographs made for commercial purposes, including sports imagery, have not been deemed important by the art-world establishment. “There are those of us who are old enough to remember when museums wouldn’t show work by Richard Avedon and Irving Penn because they shot for fashion magazines,” she says. “But I’ve spent a large part of my professional life enlarging the canon. A good photograph is a good photograph, period.”

Buckland has also enlarged the idea of what constitutes sports photography. The new exhibition includes museum-ready work by Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Ernst Haas, Martin Munkacsi, Alexander Rodchenko, Rineke Dijkstra, Andy Warhol, Catherine Opie and other noted artists, as well as masters of sports photography like Walter Iooss, Bob Martin, Heinz Kleutmeier, Neil Leifer, Rich Clarkson and Barton Silverman. The mix is provocative.

Above: "The Golden Arm, Johnny Unitas, 1958," by Robert Riger; and "Nigerian Relay Team, Olympics, Barcelona, 1992" by Ken Geiger

The oldest image in the exhibition is an 1843 daguerreotype made by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson. On loan from Scotland’s National Portrait Gallery, the image features a young man dressed in a striped jersey and white pants who is pretending to play court tennis, or what was called “real tennis,” a forerunner of the game we know today.

“With the camera technology then, you couldn’t capture action, so the young man isn’t moving. But in the picture he’s still all action,” says Buckland. “There is a dynamism in the image that is very distinctive.”

Above: "Mr. Laing or Laine, 1843," by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson

Buckland also uncovered work by French photographer Georges Demenÿ that has never been seen in this country. In 1900, Demenÿ set up a photographic lab in Paris to study the body in motion. The timing was significant, notes Buckland.

“The first modern Olympic games were held in 1896, and American athletes swept the medals,” she notes. “This also came following France’s loss in the Franco-Prussian War in the 1870s, and there was a feeling in France that the country didn’t know how to make its young men fit. Demenÿ’s work was a response to that — he was brilliant at coming up with cameras to find new ways to see the body in motion so athletes could be taught to move more efficiently.”

Above: A study of a body in motion by Georges Demenÿ

From the beginning, sports photography has driven camera technology, notes Buckland. “Eadweard Muybridge developed the shutter — probably with some help from Leland Stanford’s engineers — to photograph bodies in motion,” she says. “And at Rio de Janeiro this summer, sports photographers will be using the newest prototypes of Canons and Nikons and other cameras, because they’re constant trying to push the boundaries of what’s possible.”

Above: "Avi Torres of Spain sets off at the start of the 200m freestyle heats, Paralympic Games, Athens, September 1, 2004," by Bob Martin

The history of sports photography tracks social, political and cultural history, including changing attitudes about race. Moreover, says Buckland, sports photography provides a glimpse into mankind’s spirit. “Some scientist once said that play is one of the defining characteristics of humans, so I’ve tried to be inclusive in regard to sports. There is soccer and rugby and football, but there are also photographs of traditional sports like lifting boulders and chopping down trees.”

Above: "Football in Guinea Bissau, March 3, 2012," by Daniel Rodrigues

Buckland says she struggled at organizing the exhibition in a way that would represent the various facets of sports photography. “Then I had this eureka moment and I organized it the way photographers think. There’s a section about the decisive moment, when all the elements in a photograph come together in perfect balance. And another one about vantage point — the placement of the camera, which is a critical decision in sports photography. There’s also an ‘off-the-field’ section, with intimate pictures that sports spectators don’t see.”
At top: Serena Williams in action at the French Open, photograph by Bob Martin


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