Photo: Stephen Wilkes, Michael Jordan playing a pickup basketball game with local youth in Chicago, 1987.
All the world is a game, and we are bound to its rules, whether we choose to play—or not. Perhaps this is why sports is one of the most beloved forms of the game; it perfectly crystallizes the nature of our love for competition and a desire for dominance. Athletes commit themselves completely—mind, body, and soul—in order to get their shot at the title, while we watch in awe.
Sports, being one of the few forms of entertainment that does not use a script, promises that you don’t know the outcome going in, and it is only by virtue of bearing witness that we can experience the highs, the lows, and the thrills. But we can’t be there for every game, and so we have come to rely upon technology in order to engage.
For more than 150 years, photography has been a vital part of the collective experience of sport. In celebration, curator Gail Buckland has produced a sumptuous study of the history of the form in Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present (Alfred A. Knopf) in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name on view at the Brooklyn Museum, now through January 8, 2017.
Featuring more than 280 photographs, Who Shot Sports includes iconic photographs of everyone from Muhammad Ali, Serena Williams, and Jesse Owens to Magic Johnson, Willie Mays, and Carl Lewis. The book includes works by legendary photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Danny Lyon, and Walker Evans, as well as by the great sports photographers Neil Leifer, Bob Martin, and Al Bello, among others.
Buckland reveals, “The story of sports photography is also the story of innovation in photographic technology. In the early days, cameras were too slow to stop motion, and athletes assumed poses that suggested their vocation. Gradually, photographers on their own and with the help of others tinkered with shutters, plates, films, and lenses in order to stop and get closer to the action, and make sharper, more detailed images. Sports, which is inherently movement, has always acted as an impetus to move camera technology forward.”
Who Shot Sports is a glorious journey across time and space, bringing us around the world with style and grace. Whether a snowboarder in mid-flight in the ski fields of New Zealand or two young men playing handball on a graffiti-covered wall in Central Park, Buckland has selected works that showcase the power of photography to fleeting moments that can make or break the game.
Buckland explains, “For the book, I wanted to look at how photographers think about sports, and use this as an entrée to the decisive moment. They capture the human drama and the beauty of the body in motion to show the excellence that mortal humans possess.” This excellence comes in a wide array of forms, and as Buckland illustrates, is equally matched by the eye and mind of the photographer. As she explains, “The photographer’s decisive moments are not the same as those of the athletes or the fans watching the game.”
Indeed, for the photographer, the decisive moment is linked to the intensity of emotion that a single moment conveys. Sports photography is designed to transport us into this world, so that we can not only see but also physically feel the energy itself. Thus, Who Shot Sports is not simply the greatest moments of the game, but a brilliantly curated effort to recreate the multiple sensations of competition as well.
Consider Arthur Thill’s image, Narrow Escape—Fire Incident in Hockenheim, German FI Grand Prix. Undoubtedly, half the thrill of motorsport is the possibility of it ending in death. And yet, when a crash occurs, all bets are off, and the game goes from a competition to an emergency sure enough. Looking at Thill’s work, we are reminded of this: it’s not always crossing the finish line that makes you a winner; sometimes its as simple escaping injury or death.
Buckland, a former curator for the Royal Photographic Society for Great Britain and Benjamin Menschel Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Cooper Union, has used her wealth of knowledge to craft a singular volume that has been long missing. As she observes, “Photographic curators and historians have been locked in traditional hierarchies when determining which subjects are worthy of inclusion in the photographic canon. Sports photography has been left out. But look at the pictures; consider the moral lessons; appreciate their structure; see their beauty. The time has come for their reevaluation and acceptance into the history of photography.”
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.