Interviews

The Case for Sports Photography as Art

Cassius Clay from Who Shot Sports by Gail Buckland

Editor's Note:

Gail Buckland has written or been a collaborator on fourteen books of photographic history, including Fox Talbot and the Invention of Photography, The Magic Image (with Cecil Beaton), The American Century (by Harold Evans), and Who Shot Rock & Roll. She lives in Brooklyn and upstate New York. Her latest book is Who Shot Sports.

During the NBA Finals, a riveting photo of LeBron James popped up on social media that captures his greatness, worth way more than any sportswriter’s 1,000-word-ode to follow. There he is, bathed in light, levitating high above the rim, an almost spectral vision, ready to throw down on not just the Warriors, but on the outer limits of the sport itself. It’s a shot from Game Three, the first Cavaliers victory in the series, a lifetime before they would overcome a three-to-one deficit to the greatest regular season team in NBA history. In hindsight, it looks like the ascension of a basketball god. Had the Cavs lost, it would be a picture of an unfulfilled king, the most gifted player of the twenty-first-century crashing and burning yet again.

Sports photography is my favorite photography and not just because I have more or less given my life over to the games of others. There are a million shots that roll around in my head, the thrill of victory to the agony of defeat, all captured on film (or pixels) for the ages. Like many fans, I’d never given much thought to the person behind the lens, the geniuses who toil in general obscurity to cement sporting moments forever. Photographers like Heinz Kluetmeier, who was the first person to place a camera in the bottom of an Olympic pool at the 1992 games in Barcelona. In less than the blink of an eye, he got the immortal shot of Michael Phelps touching the wall after catching Serbia’s Milorad Cavic in the final meters of the 100-meter butterfly in Beijing in 2008. Even more than the televised race itself, it’s the thing I’ll always remember.

Thanks to Gail Buckland, sports shutterbugs are having their moment in the lights. She’s the author of Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History from 1843 to Present and the curator of an exhibition currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum, an outfield heave from the old ballpark where Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947.

The literary half of Who Shot Sports is a thorough 330-plus-page coffee table tome, summed up concisely in the intro, “When the action stops, the still photograph remains.” Images range from the famous like Nat Fein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Babe Bows Out, to lesser-known shots of unknown jocks such as Ernst Haas’s Handball, featuring two shirtless 1970s longhairs getting a sweat on in a graffiti-strewn Central Park. Buckland’s book, which was nearly five years in the making, is a celebration of the art form, obviously inspired by her love of sports, right?

“If I had a modicum of knowledge about sports, I would’ve stayed away from the project,” says Buckland. “My ignorance allowed me to go in blind. There’s merit in not recognizing the subject because I could really look at the pictures.”

Buckland may not have known Peyton Manning from Man o’War, but she certainly knows her snapshots. For forty years she’s been a scholar, curator, writer, and collaborator, examining photography through her own personal lens of expertise. Throughout her work on fourteen books, Buckland has delved into early photography, rock-and-roll, true crime, the White House in miniature, and with historians Walter Evans and Kevin Baker, The American Century. Photography is her passion and long-term research projects are the norm, so she has to be totally committed to an idea to go forward. “I stopped counting how many pictures I looked at, it’s tens of thousands,” she says.

There are plenty of collections of iconic sports photos, but Buckland’s interest doesn’t lie in Michael Jordan, it’s with Walter Iooss, the legendary Sports Illustrated staffer who painted a parking lot blue to given the impression his Royal Airness was floating through the heavens.

Who Shot Sports is something that has never been done before. I wanted to enlarge the camera and knock down these hierarchies that certain subjects are more worthy of study than others because the beauty of sports means so much to people,” says Buckland. “My Eureka moment came when I realized how sports photographers think, that their decisive moment isn’t the same decisive moment in the field of play.”

Buckland’s insight comes through at the Brooklyn Museum exhibition where the photos are displayed according to eight categories — same as the book — ranging from “In and Out of the Ring” to “Fans and Followers” and “The Decisive Moment.” The latter manages to weave together brightly tattooed (future murderer) Aaron Hernandez, Willie Mays, a BASE jumper plunging off 400-foot Castleton Tower, and my five-year-old daughter’s favorite, a shot of her number-one athlete Serena Williams in an all-out lunge, calf muscles flexed to make Milo of Croton blanch.

Critics can debate whether sports photography is art. Or, no, they can’t. It is. The large original print of Neil Lifer’s amazing 1965 shot of Muhammad Ali — glove cocked, mouth roaring, a gorgeous physical specimen heralding a changing America — towers over the exhibition. Arguably the greatest sports pic ever clicked, the photo itself has inspired visual artists galore, creative types who never have to justify their work in the “toy department” as sports sections were once mocked. To wit, Who Shot Sports includes a few names you may know from work in other mediums: Stanley Kubrick, Andy Warhol, and going back to an 1859 portrait of a young English cricket squad, Lewis Carroll. We’re through the looking glass on this one.

While taking in all the photos, I kept coming back to the LeBron picture that grabbed me. As amazing as it is, it seems to have vanished into thin Wi-Fi-ed air. Pictures can span the globe in the blink of an eye, but are iconic images lost when they aren’t suitable for framing, or being cut out of a young fan’s SI and taped to the wall?

“I do worry we’re losing our communal memory,” says Buckland. “If a photo goes viral, it’s seen by millions, but you can’t hold onto it and it disappears in a week.”

Time will tell what lives in our collective sports imagination. For now, Who Shot Sports is definitive and authoritative, replete with all sorts of technological backstories for camera geeks. However, if you find yourself in Brooklyn, I highly recommend strolling through Buckland’s collection. There’s something wondrous about seeing the mix of athleticism, history, anthropology, physiology, gender, race, and “Holy Shit, how did they get that picture?” one-after-another.

“One of my exhibition goals is to get people who normally wouldn’t come into a museum,” says Buckland. “Whether it’s baseball cards or Wheaties boxes, sports photography is part of everyday life, so I hope the book and exhibit have wide appeal.”

They should. From the early days of Edward Muybridge’s 1878 invention — a fast shutter to capture a horse in motion (and to help in a $25,000 bet) — through a 2012 Jan Grarup digital collection of women in Mogadishu, literally risking their lives to play basketball, sport of the “deadly enemy America,” Who Shot Sports is as captivating as LeBron himself.