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Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present

DATES July 15, 2016 through January 8, 2017
    Who Shot Sports is an exhibition about the art of sports photography and the men and women who have given sports its image, preserving in still pictures the fleeting actions and gestures of sports.

    The photographs on view were selected not because of their importance in sports history but because they are aesthetically powerful pictures in their own right. Divided into nine thematic sections and encompassing examples of the earliest photographic processes and the latest digital technologies, the exhibition features a wide range of sports captured by more than 170 international photographers.

    The finest sports photographers do much more than record the winning goal, dunk, or tackle. They are on the front lines of human drama, preserving bodies in motion, giving shape to the emotions of victory or despair while capturing the spirit of the game and the nobility in athletic pursuits. Like other artists, they make gesture permanent.

    When people remember moments in sports, it is often a still photograph that comes to mind: Jackie Robinson stealing home; Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the us for a new perspective podium giving the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics; Greg Louganis hitting his head on a diving board; Muhammad Ali standing victorious over Sonny Liston. If the photograph is well known, the photographer should be, too.

    Sports images have mostly been left out of the canon of photographic history. Their ability to powerfully and concisely visualize human endurance, beauty, and aspiration has been discounted, or not recognized as parallel to similar achievements in other art forms. This exhibition seeks to reevaluate these compelling images and contextualize them within the history of photography.

    Gail Buckland, guest curator
    Some of the earliest photographic innovations were inspired by artists who hoped to capture the dynamic power of the body in motion.

    Capturing bodies in motion is at the heart of sports photography. And yet for decades after the announcement of photography’s invention in 1839, cameras were incapable of stopping the action of live sports. The earliest sports photographs were thus limited to portraits of athletes and illustrations of human locomotion in carefully designed settings.

    The desire to capture the energy and movement of sports sparked many technical innovations in shutters, lenses, and cameras. In 1872, Eadweard Muybridge developed a camera shutter fast enough to freeze the action of a galloping horse. His breakthrough encouraged and inspired scientists, artists, and amateurs to experiment and innovate, and by the end of the nineteenth century Étienne-Jules Marey, Georges Demeny, and others were using photography to analyze how athletes use their bodies.
    Aesthetically speaking, a winning goal is not always a winning photograph.

    The decisive moment is one of the core concepts in the history of photography. The French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the phrase to describe the instant when the action before the lens is not simply captured by the photographer but organized in such a way as to give it power and grace, balance and form.

    Sports photographers’ decisive moments, however, are not necessarily the same as those of the athletes or the fans. The winning touchdown, the diver’s perfect entry into the water, the power of a skier racing in the giant slalom, may represent acts that will go down in sports history, but they are not necessarily decisive moments in the photographic sense. In addition to satisfying editors and the public, who often want only to see the highlights of the game, the finest sports photographers seek to make aesthetically strong pictures that are greater than a single defining action.
  • FANS
    Photographers capture a different dimension of sports when they turn their cameras around to focus on the fans.

    Sports photographers know they must communicate the body language of athletes—how they move, the grace and power with which they perform. When photographing the fans, the story is usually on the faces. Expressions of joy, suffering, suspense, and relief are universal.

    A fan has irrational passion; a love that knows no bounds; crazy, heart-throbbing anxiety when his or her team is playing. Whether sitting on a bench with a few friends in Mississippi or Namibia watching a game, or cheering with 60,000 or 100,000 people in one of the big stadiums around the world, fans know they are a vital factor in sports. So too are the many auxiliary figures in the world of sports—cheerleaders, boosters, band members, pit crews, attendants—whose participation and reactions are also integral to what happens on the field and within the photographer’s viewfinder.
    Still portraits of athletes are the counterweight to the action and allow for reflection.

    Millions of people throughout the world connect with their sports heroes through photographic portraits—on trading cards, and collectible stickers, posters, Wheaties boxes, and the covers of sports magazines.

    There are many portraits of famous athletes, but there are also many indelible portraits of lesser-known or anonymous sports figures: the high school footballer, the amateur boxer, the struggling gymnast, the young bullfighter. The most sensitive photographers will find something that triggers the viewer’s admiration or understanding, or that provides emotional insight into the struggles and achievements of their individual subjects, famous or not.
    Photographs of athletes when they are not competing or performing can provide a revealing glimpse into their emotional lives.

    In addition to shooting the game, many sports photographers are empathically drawn to athletes when they are not performing in front of fans. In locker rooms, at training camps, on the sidelines, after a race, photographers have an opportunity to present sports figures in another light. Creative partnerships between athletes and photographers, such as those between Michael Jordan and Walter Iooss Jr., and Kobe Bryant and Andrew D. Bernstein, have resulted in images that are surprisingly personal in their emphasis on what life is like for athletes away from the field of competition.

    While such free access is increasingly rare in the world of most professional sports, photographers who cover extreme sports are still able to shoot an athlete’s life in great fullness—there is only one helicopter to take everyone to the top of the mountain, only one hotel to stay in, and one restaurant to eat in in the middle of nowhere.
    Photographers look for vantage points providing unusual and dramatic insights into the subject.

    Vantage points—where the photographer chooses to place the camera—have the power to make sports photographs exhilarating and dramatic. Photography extends vision, and sports photographers are experts at moving and placing their cameras where they can achieve the kinds of bold and unusual perspectives spectators cannot obtain themselves.

    Today, photographers no longer need to be next to or even holding the camera in order to get their shot. They place multiple cameras at the most advantageous positions on the side of the court or field and trigger them remotely— often taking shots from many different angles simultaneously. Sometimes cameras are placed in drones or secured on catwalks, controlled by computers, without a human in sight.
    Throughout history, artists have found inspiration in the primal nature of boxing, wrestling, and bullfighting.

    Sculptures and reliefs dating from antiquity highlight the beauty and strength of boxers and wrestlers, often naked or semiclothed. Today, it is sports photographers who have taken up this universal subject—two bodies, little equipment—that was so fundamental to classical sculpture. The best photographers capture the physicality and the psychology behind these matches.

    Boxing, wrestling, and bullfighting have deep literary and artistic traditions. Photographers who would never stand on a sideline go willingly, week after week, to the ring.
    Some amateurs can be more passionate about playing their sport than the pros, and talented photographers capture their love of the game.

    Not all sports photography focuses on professional athletes or commercial games. Indeed, Walter Iooss Jr., one of the most famous sports photographers in the world, admits to not always wanting to photograph millionaires. Sports photographers started in the field because of their own passion for sports, and they like to see and to photograph such passion in others. Little League in Pittsburgh, kicking a ball with friends in Yemen, a baseball game on a street in Havana, basketball in South Sudan and Mogadishu: all are subjects that have great appeal to photog- raphers interested in capturing earnestness and enjoyment, which can be more pronounced in amateurs than in professionals.
    Sports photographers as well as athletes achieve greatness at the Olympics.

    Just as the international athletes who assemble on the world stage every four years have trained to perform at their peak, so too have the photographers. Some plan their shots years ahead, practicing for the big event and making sure they are fit enough to sustain two exhausting weeks of jockeying for prime positions in the crush of fellow photographers, running with heavy equipment, and captioning and transmitting pictures. Cutting-edge technologies and prototype cameras not yet on the market are debuted at the Olympics by photographers eager to give viewers new perspectives, crystal-sharp stop–action, and intimate views of the athletes.
  • March 1, 2016 The finest sports photographers, their skills honed from years of practice, are capable of capturing and making a fleeting moment memorable, often from a surprising or revealing vantage point. Driven to freeze action and portray what the naked eye alone cannot see, these photographers have played a leading role in elevating sports’ universal appeal and a crucial part in the evolution of camera and film technology. 

    From July 15, 2016, through January 8, 2017, the Brooklyn Museum will present Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present, the most comprehensive survey of the art of sports photography ever produced, highlighting the aesthetic, cultural, and historical significance of these images and artists in the history of sports. The exhibition will include approximately 230 photographs by more than 170 photographers ranging from daguerreotypes and salted paper prints to more than 220 digital images showcasing a variety of different sports from nations around the globe.

    Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present includes work by Richard Avedon, Al Bello, David Burnett, Rich Clarkson, Georges Demeny, Dr. Harold Edgerton, Rineke Dijkstra, Brian Finke, Toni Frissell, Ken Geiger, LeRoy Grannis, David Guttenfelder, Ernst Haas, Charles “Teenie” Harris, Walter Iooss, Jr., Heinz Kleutmeier, Stanley Kubrick, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Neil Leifer, Étienne-Jules Marey, Bob Martin, Martin Munkacsi, Edward Muybridge, Catherine Opie, Gérard Rancinan, Leni Riefenstahl, Robert Riger, Alexander Rodchenko, Howard Schatz, Flip Schulke, George Silk, Barton Silverman, Andy Warhol, and many others whose pictures may be celebrated but whose names are unknown.

    The exhibition is organized by the Brooklyn Museum and Gail Buckland, who returns as guest curator after the seminal 2009 exhibition Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present.

    “Sports are beauty in motion with a powerful competitive edge. The ancient Greeks celebrated their athletes, and the finest artists of antiquity preserved those athletes’ achievements. Today, it is the photographers who give sports its indelible image,” said Buckland. “Seeing athletic greatness, we both recognize our personal physical limitations and delight in bodies and minds taken to new heights. To play and to watch is to be in the moment. Still photographers are masters of moments.”

    Who Shot Sports will be presented in thematic sections exploring different subjects within the field, including: The Beginnings of Sports Photography, which features an early salted paper portrait from 1843 of a court tennis player by masters David Octavius Hill (Scottish, 1802–1870) and Robert Adamson (Scottish, 1821–1848); The Decisive Moment, including Henri Cartier-Bresson’s image of a cycling race; Fans and Followers; Portraits; Off the Field; Vantage Point; In and Out of the Ring; For the Love of Sport; and The Olympics, featuring images from the first modern Olympics in 1896 to the London Olympics in 2012.

    Who Shot Sports is a ticketed exhibition. The cost is $16 for adults, $10 for students with valid ID and adults 62 and over, and $10 for corporate Members. The exhibition is free for Individual Members and above, and for youth aged 19 and under. On Target First Saturdays and Squarespace Thursdays, admission to Who Shot Sports will cost $10. Tickets, which also include general Museum admission, will be available at and at the Admissions Desk in the Museum’s lobby.

    Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present
    will tour to the Grand Rapids Art Museum, February 3–April 30, 2017; the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, May 26–December 10, 2017; and other venues to be announced.

    A companion book of the same title, published by Alfred A. Knopf, will accompany the exhibition.

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