Gods and mortals

Since the invention of photography in the 19th century, photographers have aspired to capture memorable moments in sports and create defining images of young mesomorphs doing great things in athletic events. In her seminal book, On Photography, Susan Sontag considers such imagery enduring because “after the event has ended, the picture will still exist, conferring on the event a kind of immortality (and importance) it would never otherwise have enjoyed.”

Despite the ubiquity of sports images, only a limited number are accepted as “art photography” and make their way into museums and galleries. To the cognoscenti, there has to be something transcendental about sports photographs to be of museum quality. They have to reveal the very nature of sports – human drama, emotional highs and lows, sublime beauty – and illustrate photography’s progress itself, and not simply the depiction of athletes.
The oeuvre of iconic American photographer Garry Winogrand (1928–1984) exemplifies this difference. While his finest works are monochromatic images of Americans living ebullient lives – he was one of the first to visually document the quotidian in an elliptical and satiric way (another is the indefatigable Elliott Erwitt) – he also shot frequently for Sports Illustrated. But even his sports images are considered photojournalistic, and many exude the same aura of optimism inherent in his non-sports street photography.
The attempt at photographing movement realistically was only realised two decades after Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre invented the daguerreotype and Henry Fox Talbot created the calotype (precursor to the photographic process). Technical advances towards the end of the 19th century eventually allowed photographers to take pictures of movement (and sports) with more precision. But it was the experiments of English photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904) that truly employed photography to re-appraise the body beyond its idealised construction in traditional art.
Muybridge pioneered action photography by capturing the sequence of a galloping horse with twelve cameras. He later produced Animal Locomotion, his monumental eleven-volume photographs of moving animals and humans that established the foundation of action photography. His observations endowed anatomical objects with mechanical potential – seemingly in constant movement – and his sequence of an unclothed athlete launching a discus, for instance, exemplifies this transfiguration of the human body into a sexual and kinetic figure for contemplation.
The development of faster shutter speed and Harold Edgerton’s stroboscopic flash in the 1930s led to the explosion of motion photography (the latter was famous for his speeding bullet and splashing milk images). With these new technologies, the great photographers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa, John Gutmann, Lee Friedlander, Martin Munkacsi, Leni Riefenstahl, Winogrand (among many) – began to aim their cameras at humans in motion. Collections from that era set the aesthetic standards for photography’s practitioners today, and like their antecedents, they are still looking for ways to push the medium’s limits.
Influential American photographer and curator Leo Rubinfien – currently organising a Winogrand retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) – says “relatively little of Winogrand’s sports photographs are among his most lasting and highly valued work.” But he asserts that they can be sublime as well, in particular those that express “frenetic movement – what one can see clearly versus what one can barely make out – the roar of life, and infinite fragility of a single moment in time.” Winogrand’s photograph of cheerleaders leaping across a basketball court, for example, epitomises the kind of unbridled energy found in his non-sports prints.
Rubinfien also feels that Winogrand’s sports photography is at its most powerful when he catches athletes beyond the confines of the sporting arena. His cites a photograph of a black bodybuilder showing off his bulging muscles and Winogrand emphasising “the raw brutal force of the athlete rather than the historical fact of the game.” Rubinfien explains that Winogrand “always felt that in his work there was a savage he was trying to keep in, and it was easy for him to see something similar in athletes.”
The portrayal of athletes as mythical humans has vestigial influence from classical Greek depictions of heroes as athletes. They were made indistinguishable from gods and cast as symbols of virility and power.
But beyond the idealisation of physical beauty, photography also represents athletes as emblems of social and moral values. Tomohiro Harada, founder of the Tokyo Photo fair, believes “photography can reveal what the eyes cannot see,” and “athletes can represent hope and make miracles happen.”
Pictures of triumphant sportsmen and women at international games undoubtedly instil in ardent supporters a deep sense of national pride, but if unchecked (as history attests) can turn such passion into a virulent form of nationalism. When photographers highlight the beauty and power, and not frailties, of athletes from their own countries, they can unwittingly perpetuate the untenable utopian vision of a perfect society (or race).
Leni Riefenstahl (1902–2003), the infamous German filmmaker who produced Hitler’s ultra-nationalistic film, Triumph of the Will, also made Olympia, a documentary about the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Still photographs from Olympia, now archived in the Library of Congress, are unabashed evocations of German athletes as exemplars of racial and cultural hegemony. Even though Riefenstahl, in retrospect, argued that her works were artistic and not political, they unequivocally glorified youth and beauty – and sharpened Hitler’s rhetoric about a supreme German race.
Captivated by the universality of sports, prolific Polish photographer Tomasz Gudzowaty, winner of eight World Press Photo Awards, travelled extensively and chronicled Shaolin monks, Nada Kusti wrestlers, Sao Paulo boxers and Australian pole dancers, to name a few. His photographic series of Ukrainian water ballerinas and Chinese gymnasts reflect his passion for transformative social documentaries that, collectively, tell a more profound story of sports. He regards his work as an anthropological survey of sports rather than “the territory once defined by Riefenstahl”, and aligns himself with celebrated Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado because “sports is the most powerful cultural metaphor for all human experiences, and photography is all about capturing humanity.” But he sees the obvious appeal of sports: “The athlete is a modern hero, largely displacing the warrior in that role, and embodies our innermost longing for power, success, and glory.”
Who can forget the ubiquitous images of Michael Phelps, the American swimmer who won fourteen gold medals at the Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 Olympics, posing unabashedly for the cameras in scanty swimwear to inspire endless fantasies of human virility? Sports photography, after all, is a paradox that sexualises the body while giving it transcendence, functioning both as visual contemplation for heroic exploits and currency for erotic voyeurism. For a while, before Phelps was pictured in the tabloids smoking a bong that sent him crashing back to earth, his fans idolised him and his perfect body, and clung on to the myth of his infallibility.
In a striking photograph of Phelps, shot by American photographer Jim Fiscus, the swimmer’s body ripples in silvery muscles, like a metal sculpture, celebrating the swimmer’s dynamism and perfection.
“Fame brings with it a level of sexuality that is attached to the modern day concept of the cult of the celebrity,” Fiscus says. “Art has always glorified top athletes. Photography hasn’t changed anything other than the ability to stop motion – to capture a very small slice of time. We all have our heroes and photography is a way to creatively document a fluid shape.”
Michael Muller, another American sports photographer, considers athletes as performers of miracles. “Athletes can do things for the camera that us mere mortals cannot,” he says. “What these people do or perform is godlike. These athletes are ‘gifted’, as if God touched them on their way into this life and gave them that talent to do what they do. The point is, yes, these people are mini Gods walking amongst us.”
Muller’s portrait of LeBron James, the American basketball superstar, embodies the mythicising of an athlete in photography. Set against a void and in dramatic chiaroscuro, James stands melodramatically with his strong arms stretched outwards and head tilted back, as if adrift in space, exhaling a stunning plume of smoke. He appears to be a representation of the divine itself, standing at some metaphysical point where man and god intersect.
To Muller, photography also reveals the humanity of athletes. “No one is perfect. They are human and will never be perfect. They are always looking to better themselves, always raising the bar and pushing themselves and their sport. I do shoot them in ways that I feel elevate them, but at the same time, peek inside and see their souls if given the chance.”
When the Olympics returns to London this summer – the city previously hosted the 1908 and 1948 games – we will all become voyeurs once again of athletes gathering from around the world to display their sporting skills and perfectly-honed bodies. Even those who don’t usually follow athletic events can indulge in gaping and gasping at these young sportsmen and women striking powerful poses in vast arenas, reminding us once again that mortals can be demigods. But sports photography is ultimately an artistic enquiry into the human condition, in the way Rubinfien describes Winogrand’s photography as asking “questions that neither it nor we can answer, and through doing this expresses something of the essential spirit of its subject (specific or general), or of the place, the age, or of its maker.”
Since its invention, photography has certainly revolutionised the way we see ourselves through the prism of the athlete’s body. Beyond this elevating of the athlete as a metaphoric construct, photography also memorialises transcendent moments in sports in the way no other creative genres can. Remember how you can almost hear the roar of the crowd in a sports photograph? This is best encapsulated in the words of legendary American basketball player – and former senator of New Jersey – Bill Bradley in Athletes: Photographs, 1860–1986 (edited by Ruth Silverman): “What seems so special to me about the photography of athletes is that it preserves visually a moment in time. There is no before or no after, no feel of the ball, no sound of the crowd – just an instant of motion stilled for ever by the camera and the photographer’s eye. The rest is left to the viewer.”
by Peter Yeoh
From the Glass Archive – Lust