By Peter Stamelman
Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
As the first week of the Rio 2016 Summer Games concludes and baseball’s pennant races heat up, there’s no better time to visit the Brooklyn Museum's “Who Shot Sports” exhibition — and no better time to stock up on the perfect Hanukkah, Christmas or Kwanza gift for the sports fan in your life: the book the exhibition is based on, Gail Buckland’s monumental and definitive study, also called “Who Shot Sports.”
The book is, indisputably, the most comprehensive and definitive tribute to the long unsung photographers who shot our most iconic sports photographs — photographs that reside in the collective memory of not just sports fans, but of anyone who recognizes great works of art. Buckland, doff your cap — you’ve hit a walk-off home run.
Buckland, who also curated the exhibition, is a proud Brooklyn native who currently divides her time between Kensington/Windsor Terrace and a home in Upstate New York. What makes her accomplishment all the more remarkable is that she herself is not even a sports fan. In both her Dedication and Acknowledgments, she graciously makes it clear who served as her Boswell (James, not Thomas) in the endeavor: “No one helped me navigate pitfalls and faux pas more than my son-in-law Stephen Jackson Taylor.” As that celebrated sports oracle Groucho Marx once said: “The son-in-law also rises…”
The Who’s Who of “Who Shot Sports” is spectacular: Richard Avedon, Robert Capa, Gerry Cranham, Charles Conlon (whose haunting, unforgettable portrait of Lou Gehrig is a quiet masterpiece), Jacques Henri Lartigue, Neil Leifer, Robert Riger, Barton Silverman (Lafayette High School, Brooklyn College) and even a young Stanley Kubrick. Andy Warhol tiptoes in also. Altogether, the best work of 170 sports photographers is on display.
The subjects of these photos range from Brooklyn icons such as Sandy Koufax and Jackie Robinson to such global superstars as Pele and Michael Jordan. However, there are also indelible images of the fans and supporters; two in particular stand out: Gerry Cranham’s 1979 masterpiece of composition and perspective “Fans filling the terraces behind the goal at the Nottingham Forest vs. Bolton Wanderers game” and Donald Miralle’s audacious and jaw-dropping 40-foot-by-60-foot “Men’s Beach Volleyball, 2012 London Olympics.” Both of these images, with their Brueghel-esque detail, demand and reward close scrutiny.
Because there is such a massive number of photographs, the exhibition, following the excellent format of the book, is divided into eight thematic sections, making it easier for the viewer/reader to take in the full range and sweep of the wealth of images. Equally, Buckland’s text and wall captions are as lucid and illuminating as the photographs she’s selected. To cite just one example: in discussing that Charles Conlon Lou Gehrig portrait, Buckland makes an astute parallel between Nadar’s “penetrating portraits” of “the greatest of [19th century] French intellectuals, artists and writers” and Conlon’s “probing and perceptive portraiture” of baseball players in the early decades of the 20th century — a correlation as smoothly executed as a Pee Wee Reese to Junior Gilliam to Gil Hodges double play.
And then there is the incomparable Robert Riger, who is in a class by himself. After majoring in fine art and graphic design at Pratt Institute, and then joining the Merchant Marine during World War II, Riger, who was a major sports fan, returned to New York to become a freelance artist, concentrating on sports subjects.
When Sports Illustrated was launched in 1954, Riger was hired to do editorial drawings, eventually doing more than 1,400, which also included advertising and promotional drawings. While he was drawing, he was also learning photography. As Buckland writes, “From 1950 to 1994, Riger took more than 90,000 photographs, at a time when film came in 12, 24 and 36 exposure packs and rolls.”
Riger was the only sports photographer to have three one-man exhibitions, all at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC). Hugh Edwards, the former curator of photography at the AIC, wrote that Riger’s photographs showed “the completed gesture ... something we believed possible only in the hands of geniuses of draughtsman-ship like Gericault and Degas.”
Recently, by telephone, the Eagle had the opportunity to speak with Buckland. The following are excerpts from that conversation.
Eagle: What was the genesis for the book and the exhibition?
Gail Buckland: As someone who has been writing about photography for almost five decades, I’m always trying to enlarge the canon, as I did with my preceding book and exhibition “Who Shot Rock n’ Roll” [also a Knopf book and also exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum.] I want my books and exhibitions to enjoy popular success; I want to pull in people who perhaps wouldn’t ordinarily buy a photography book or go to a photography exhibition. The category, sports or rock n’ roll, would be the initial attraction, and then, ideally, an appreciation for the men and women who shot the photographs.
Eagle: How did many of these photographers feel about your including them in a celebratory art book and exhibition?
GB: They were ecstatic. It was transformative for many of them. You know, most of them had always been treated like hacks. To finally achieve some recognition and honor was a great thrill. And many weren’t even aware themselves of the depth and range of sports photography. Walter Iooss, Jr. [the legendary Sports Illustrated photographer whose astounding image “Bill Russell and Elgin Baylor, Los Angeles, California, 1966” adorns the cover of the book], after reading the book and seeing the exhibition, said to me, “I learned so much I hadn’t known about my own profession.”
Eagle: For me, one of the many treats of the book and the show is how often the sports photographer will turn his lens from the players on the field to the spectators in the stands, as in that stunning Jerry Canham image of the “Fans filling the terraces…”
GB: Yes, that’s an example of how the best of these photographers were not only conscious of the action, but also of the fans watching the action. They, the photographers, wanted to capture the angles, the energy, the spirit, the movement — and they didn’t limit themselves to some preconceived notion of where to search for those qualities.
Look at that remarkable black and white John Zimmerman photograph of Abebe Bikila running barefoot in triumph toward the finish line at the Arch of Constantine in Rome at the 1960 Olympics. As I write in the book, it’s Zimmerman’s brilliant sense of light and composition that give this moment its Fellini-esque quality.
Eagle: Speaking of black and white images, Charles Conlon’s 1927 close-up portrait of Lou Gehrig is unforgettable.
GB: Conlon wanted the viewer to focus on Gehrig’s eyes. In fact, on the back of the print, Conlon had written, “Lou Gehrig’s home run batting eyes.” He focused on the details — the hands, the fingers.
Eagle: And Conlon’s close-up of Eddie Cicotte fingers, holding a knuckleball. What a gem!
GB: Conlon photographed the anatomical details of the baseball players: their fingers, palms, hands gripping the bat. He felt this was the way to really understand the skill and dexterity of these ball players.
Eagle: Finally, in this age of watching sports on smartphones, of not being “present” and short attention spans (as you yourself write “Viewing pictures is active not passive. Looking at a still photograph demands imagination. They require more effort than watching television.”) … do you think young viewers today will ever be able to stand or sit still long enough, without digital distraction, to look at still photographs with that necessary “imagination?”
GB: I certainly hope so. My passion is photography. I believe one needs to spend time really “looking” at a photograph, thinking about it, reflecting on it. And I believe the experience should be transformative. Unlike digital, which is transitory, still photographs are about memory. We chose what to look at and, in many ways, we become what we see.
“Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present” is published by Alfred Knopf and is available now in bookstores. The Brooklyn Museum exhibition runs through Jan. 8, 2017. For more information, go to www.brooklynmuseum.org