Published: June 27, 2006
The worlds of photography and sports have evolved hand-in-hand for more than a century, each moving from relatively primitive states to today’s more sophisticated status. The challenge of freezing a moment in time, especially as applied to fast-moving athletes, has long intrigued both professional and amateur photographers.
Through their evocative images we can relive dramatic moments depicting the will to win of famous and not-so-famous competitors, as recorded by famous and not-so-famous photographers. Their lenses have captured many of the greatest moments in sports history.
“Visions of Victory Presented by Mutual of Omaha” was initially organized for presentation at the 1996 centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta as a tribute to 100 years of the international competition and the achievements of sports photographers.
Currently on view at the Joslyn Art Museum through August 13 and at the Springfield (Mo.) Art Museum, September 16-November 12, the exhibition is a treat for those who love sports and those who appreciate high-quality photography. The 147 images from all over the world underscore the fascination of capturing athletic motion on film, along with the drama inherent in a variety of sports.
When originally displayed ten years ago, as “Visions of Victory: A Century of Sports Photography,” the exhibition marked a new direction in the art of photographic presentation when all prints were digitally reproduced from their original images using state-of-the-art technology. They look good in the Joslyn’s galleries.
The exhibition is sufficiently comprehensive to include views of a virtual Who’s Who of the most famous athletes of the Twentieth Century. They are portrayed most often in action, but occasionally in moments of quiet reflection.
Photography was invented in 1845; sports photography dates to 1878, when British photographer Eadweard Muybridge took his famous views of horses in motion. As the popularity of sports in America accelerated after the turn of the century, especially during the “Golden Age of Sports” in the 1920s, photographers were there to turn action into history. Life magazine and later Sports Illustrated gave great impetus to framing sports moments forever in high-quality images. Until the mid-1960s, most sports photos were in black and white; after that, full-color images became the norm.
A number of remarkable photographs in the exhibition date tothe period before World War I, when photography came of age. Theyrange from images of genteel, gowned women golfing or playingtennis to a panoramic view of the crowd and horses in action at arace track by Alfred Stieglitz to social reformer Lewis Hines’sshot of a pickup baseball game in a crowded, messy Boston tenementalley.
One of the earliest photographs in the exhibition, “Double Jump,” 1885, shows multiple images of a young nude man hopping from a standing start. It was taken by the great painter Thomas Eakins, whose extensive use of photographic studies contributed to the psychological intensity of his meticulous canvases. Eakins helped bring pioneering motion-studies photographer Muybridge to the University of Pennsylvania, where the two scientifically inclined artists worked together on various projects. Today, Eakins’s photographs are recognized as among the finest of his day.
True baseball fans will be familiar with “Ty Cobb sliding into third base,” 1910, a remarkably early image taken by Charles Martin Conlon showing the fiercely competitive “Georgia Peach” kicking up a cloud of dirt as he safely gains his objective. “I always went into the bag full speed, feet first,” Cobb recalled. “I had sharp spikes on my shoes. If the baseman stood where he had no business to be and got hurt, that was his fault.” That zeal to win, along with a remarkable .367 batting average during his 24-year major league career, earned Cobb the honor of being among the first players elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1936.
The precocious French amateur Jacques-Henri Lartigue(1894-1986), who took his first picture at the age of 6,specialized in people and objects in motion, especially flyingmachines and motor cars. His ability to record instantaneous slicesof time and his nontraditional compositional structures arereflected in “Grand Prix de l’ACF,” 1912, in which a race carspeeds by blurred images of spectators. As Sarah Greenough, head ofthe department of photographs at the National Gallery of Art, hasobserved, “Lartigue froze motion, for his was a world of movement.”
For years, baseball – as America’s national pastime and populated by colorful, charismatic major league players – was a favorite subject of photographers. In addition to Cobb, on view are wonderful images of such immortals as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig (at Yankee Stadium in 1939, when the doomed “Iron Horse” tearfully called himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth”), Ted Williams, Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax, Hank Aaron and Cal Ripken, the latter circling Baltimore’s Camden Yards amidst adoring fans, players and photographers, on September 6, 1995, when he broke Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive games played.
The electrifying ability of Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays to steal bases was immortalized by an anonymous photographer who showed the man who broke baseball’s color barrier swiping home for the Brooklyn Dodgers against the Chicago Cubs in 1949, and the “Say Hey Kid” plowing into third for the New York Giants in a 1955 photograph by Robert Riger.
Football, which grew in popularity as the Twentieth Centuryadvanced, lent itself to evocative photography. In 1924, aftersportswriter Grantland Rice had dubbed the Notre Dame backfield ofCrowley, Layden, Miller and Stuhldreher the “Four Horseman,” ananonymous photographer immortalized them, in uniform and cradlingfootballs, mounted on horses. The determination that madeUniversity of Illinois running back Harold “Red” Grange the mostfamous football player of his day was captured by an anonymousphotographer in a 1925 image.
Riger showed Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas cocking his arm to throw a pass in the 1958 NFL championship game between his Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, considered by many the greatest football game ever played. Brash New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath was photographed in 1974 by Neil Leifer on the sidelines at Shea Stadium, caked with mud but cocky as ever. By contrast, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photographer Morris Berman’s wonderful image of New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle on his knees with a bloodied head at the end of a game is the quintessential shot of an athlete at the end of the road.
Michael Jordan, regarded by many as the greatest basketball player of all time, is featured in two of the seven basketball photographs on view. In 1988, the former Chicago Bulls star was captured by Walter Iooss Jr of Sports Illustrated soaring to the basket – he looks at least five feet off the floor – as he won the NBA slam-dunk contest. Chris Hamilton’s 1991 photograph features the blurry figure of Jordan elevating over defender Doc Rivers.
The drama of the one-on-one competition and the physical punishment involved in the sport make boxing a popular subject for photographers. Closeup views of gloves smashing into opponents’ faces, notably in the Ezzard Charles versus Joe Louis bout of 1950 and Gene Fullmer versus Neal Rivers in 1957, are visible reminders of the brutality of pugilism. Bird’s-eye views of the Louis- Jersey Joe Wolcott fight of 1947 (by Hungarian-born Gjon Mili) and the Muhammad Ali-Cleveland Williams bout of 1966 (by Leifer) convey the magnitude of the packed crowds heavyweights attract to major bouts.
Perhaps the most famous boxing photograph of all time isLeifer’s 1965 picture of the triumphant Ali exulting over hisfallen opponent, the fearsome Sonny Liston, in their rematch inLewiston, Maine. Ali called his first-round blow, which isdifficult to discern in replays, the “anchor punch.”
A far cry from the brutality in the ring is a compelling photo by Gerard Vandystadt of Germany’s photogenic Katarina Witt, gliding through one of the routines that helped her win Olympic gold medals in figure skating in 1984 and 1988. Her regal, self-confident pose reflects her view that “If I feel eyes are on me, I’m better.”
The grace and athleticism of gymnasts, epitomized by Nadia Comaneci, was conveyed by an unknown photographer in a pose at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, where the 14-year-old Romanian earned an unprecedented seven 10s.
The moment of victory of the underdog US hockey team over the supposedly invincible Soviet Union squad at the 1980 Olympics, one of the greatest upsets in sports history, was recorded in living color by Sports Illustrated photographer Heinz Kluetmeier in “The Miracle on Ice, Lake Placid, New York,” 1980. Many who recall this wild celebration forget that the United States still had to defeat Finland two days later to capture the gold medal.
Most of the 24 pictures of track-and-field action featureviews of summer Olympics, including vintage photographs of suchimmortals as Jim Thorpe in Stockholm in 1912 and Jesse Owens inBerlin in 1936. There are, to be sure, memorable photographs ofMildred “Babe” Didrickson Zaharias, arguably the greatest femaleathlete of the Twentieth Century, long after her victories at the1932 Olympics, and an exhausted Roger Bannister breaking thefour-minute barrier in the mile in 1954.
At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, photographer Tony Duffy snapped American long jumper Bob Beamon suspended in air as he leaped an incredible 29 feet 21/2 inches, far surpassing the world record. It is a visual reminder of Beamon’s feat, which some have called the greatest single athletic achievement in history.
Three grand photographs dramatically convey the glory of victory and the agony of defeat at the Olympics. In one of the most poignant images in the exhibition, especially for those who remember watching it live on television, is the picture of Mary Decker being helped from the track after she fell when she and Zola Budd collided during the women’s 300-meter race in Los Angeles in 1984. As her chance for Olympic gold slips away, the anguish and frustration on Decker’s weeping face is palpable.
Far happier is the image of the incomparable Florence Griffith Joiner, who turned a fanatical workout regimen into three gold medals and a silver at the Seoul Olympics of 1988. She was photographed by Mike Powell triumphantly crossing a finish line.
Four years later in Barcelona, the gifted and charismaticJackie Joyner-Kersee won her second straight Olympic heptathlon.Her moment of victory, arms upraised and holding an American flag,was recorded by Rusty Kennedy in a memorable photograph.
“Visions of Victory” is a splendid showcase of photographic virtuosity and athletic effort. It serves to remind us how much sports mean to so many of us, and why we can be grateful that skilled photographers have been interested in capturing moments of determined exertion, maximum effort, exuberant celebration or quiet reflection.
There is no exhibition catalog, per se, but Visions of Victory: A Century of Sports Photography, which accompanied the original display a decade ago, can fill that role. Illustrated with all photographs in the current exhibition and many others, amplified by informative captions, this 112-page soft cover book is out of print, but can be purchased on the Internet for $20 or so.
The Joslyn Art Museum is at 2200 Dodge Street. For information, 402-342-3300 or www.joslyn.org.
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