Shooting Sports

Even in these video-dominated times, the grandest sporting moments continue to be captured in still photography.


The best sports photographers are artists, who train just as hard as Olympic athletes in order to capture that one moment that will go down in history: the majesty of triumph, the disappointment of defeat, the pain of sudden injury, the wild beauty of competition, together with all the grace, power and dance-like quality in the movement of a superbly trained body being pushed to its limits. Like solitary shooters – despite the fact that they are usually tightly packed together – waiting motionless in their positions, defying challenging weather conditions, oblivious to any stimuli other than the contest unfolding before their eyes, sports photographers know they will have only a single opportunity, for just a fraction of a second, to immortalize the most striking facial expression or perfect movement in the ultimate “frame.”

Digital technology is both their blessing and their curse. Sure, it enables them to shoot in “volleys,” filling memory cards with thousands of images. And yet, it has made their work more expendable. A relatively “small” athletic event, being held right now somewhere in the world, may produce a truly great image, which, however, is destined to go unnoticed, a mere drop in the ocean of moments that inundate the media.

And yet. From Germany’s Albert Meyer, who immortalized the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, to England’s Bob Martin of Sports Illustrated fame, who has won 57 (!) awards and naturally has already set up shop in Rio de Janeiro, leading exponents of the science, art and practice of sports photography continue to produce epic images that resemble historic paintings and become indelibly imprinted in our mind, associated with great sporting achievements.

These are the views of a true expert in the field, American photography historian Gail Buckland, curator of the exhibition Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1845 to the Present at the Brooklyn Museum. The accompanying album (published by Albert Knopf, 2016) contains more than 280 spectacular images, including great action shots; portraits of athletes, famous and unknown; the fans who adore them; athletes off the field and behind the scenes; and the daily relentless effort of training and achieving physical perfection.     

Buckland writes that sports photographers have always been central to the technical advancement of photography; they have designed or demanded longer lenses, faster shutters, motor drives, underwater casings and remote controls, allowing us to see what we could never see before – and hold on to – with the naked eye. “Sports are beauty in motion with a powerful competitive edge. The best sports photographers are also artists, carefully crafting their pictures. Yet, their contribution to cultural, artistic and photographic history is rarely noted. To see human greatness is both to recognize our own personal limitations and to delight in what are fellow human beings can physically and mentally achieve. To play and to watch sports is to be fully in the moment. Nothing freezes the moment like a still photograph. When the athletes on the court and on the field are taking their shots, the photographers on the sidelines are taking theirs.”

“The best sports photographers are also artists, carefully crafting their pictures. Yet, their contribution to cultural, artistic and photographic history is rarely noted. To see human greatness is both to recognize our own personal limitations and to delight in what are fellow human beings can physically and mentally achieve.”

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