Still photographs define how we think of photography, so much so that the word “still” usually gets left out. That encourages overlooking the fact that the movies — motion pictures — are a form of photography, too. So what happens when a still photographer makes his specialty, dance or sports, something far better suited to motion pictures?
“Emil Hoppé: Photographs From the Ballets Russes” and “Legends: The Sports Photography of Walter Iooss” answer that question in ways that are both wildly dissimilar and highly appealing. “Emil Hoppé" runs at the Museum of Russian Icons, in Clinton, through March 8. It’s balletomane heaven. “Legends” is at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, in New London, Conn., through Jan. 12. If sports junkies had heaven (they just have come-from-behind victories that beat the spread), this would qualify.
The Ballets Russes was one of the great artistic ornaments of the last century — maybe the greatest. Only the Bauhaus, in its very different way, rivals it as a Modernist nexus. Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, and Satie composed for it. Picasso, Matisse, and Kandinsky designed for it. Its dancers and choreographers — Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, Michel Fokine, George Balanchine — still dominate the imagination of dance.
So Hoppé (1878-1972) had his work cut out for him twice over. There wasn’t just the challenge of documenting a miracle. There was the even greater one of doing so when photographic technology didn’t allow for the rapid exposure times we’ve long since grown accustomed to (and which decades later Iooss would exploit so memorably).
The ballet’s impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, hired Hoppé as the company’s “pictorial chronicler.” The quaintness of the title suggests the novelty of the task. Photography’s documentary superiority to painting, print-making, and drawing was plain at the medium’s birth. Yet with dance it was at a disadvantage. Consider the vividness of Degas’s many dance works: the way he could play with perspective, blur appearance to indicate motion, and rely on the (liberating) subjectivity of brush rather than the (limiting) objectivity of lens.
The 89 photographs on display range in date from 1911 to 1923. This was the tail end of the heyday in photography of Pictorialism. In that sense, Hoppé was Pictorial chronicler as well as pictorial. Pictorialism emphasized softness and texture and romantic subject matter — qualities well suited to ballet, even when as revolutionary as the Ballets Russes. This is accentuated by the photographs being platinum prints, a format conducive to delicate textures and fine detailing.
“Elegance is refusal,” declared Coco Chanel (or was it Diana Vreeland?). Here elegance is embrace: of the lush, the voluptuous, the elaborate. So many of the dancers resemble silent film stars (speaking of motion pictures), with their exaggerated expressions and exotic costumes. Here is one way Hoppé got around the challenge of stillness: portraiture. He understood that while the stage exalts the body in all its sculptural fullness the camera worships the face.
Faces Hoppé would give it. The supreme example belongs to the name supremely associated with the Ballets Russes: Nijinsky. The sheer sexiness of the portrait of him in full costume (and even fuller makeup) from “La Spectre de la Rose” is hard to overstate. He isn’t so much flesh and blood as gunpowder in search of a match.
The other way Hoppé got around the slowness of his film stock and shutter speeds was through the anticipation of motion. We frequently get dancers en pointe or in arrested gesture. The curve of blade and body with Hubert Stowitts in 1920 is stillness awaiting acceleration. Even if we don’t see actual motion, Hoppé presents him and his fellow dancers so that we can easily imagine them about to demonstrate it.
It’s action shots, many of them quite spectacular, that drive “Legends”: Willie Mays batting, Muhammad Ali punching, Clyde Drexler dunking. But Iooss understands the power of a face in repose. There are 63 photographs in the show, ranging in date from 1962 to 2011. Some of the most memorable are portraits: of Michael Jordan, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams. That last one is an off-the-court glamour shot, not that Serena on the court lacks for glamour. With her empress-gorgeous face, Williams could fit in among Hoppé's ballerinas. Dangly earrings and butterfly-big false lashes underscore the affinity; and let’s not forget what phenomenal athletes dancers are.
Now 76, Iooss shot his first professional football game at 16. Doing so, he says, left him “consumed by sports and form.” That’s a rather grand statement, but the career more than justifies it. Iooss got his first Sports Illustrated assignment just out of high school. His first SI cover came at 19. More than 300 would follow.
“People play the lottery for the same reason I do my job," Iooss has said. "They’re hoping some magical moment comes along and they win $10 million. I’ve been winning my whole career.” Even better, he’s been sharing those winnings with the rest of us.
Most of the photographs are 22 inches by 14 inches, or vice versa. That large-ish size befits Iooss’s larger-than life subjects. The photographs all have good-sized white mattes and narrow frames. The combination ensures that the images really pop, not that they need much help. Iooss knew what he was doing.
There are famous moments here: Cal Ripken Jr. breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-game record; Dwight Clark’s winning touchdown reception in the NFC conference final, in 1982, “The Catch,” which Iooss calls his most famous picture. There are also things even the most attentive fan would not otherwise see, as in a 1999 photo essay on athletic training in Cuba or the sight of a scoreboard operator at Wrigley Field doffing his cap during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Sports are innately visual. They’re dynamic, emotional, dramatic. They’re also familiar. That was true even in an SI age. It’s overwhelmingly so in an ESPN one. Familiarity was a problem Hoppé didn’t have to deal with. Iooss has addressed it in numerous ways. One is perspective or framing: “the backgrounds were as important as what you place in the foreground," he notes.
The television-camera view we’re accustomed to need not be the only view. Nor is it necessarily the most revealing. Iooss also knows that action can consist of emotion no less, or even more, than motion. In 1979, the year Billie Jean King won her final title at Wimbledon, in doubles, he shows her looking very nearly autumnal in late afternoon light. There’s a quality of stillness and inwardness that’s quite startling — and all the more so for being utterly unlike what sports photography (still or televised) has accustomed us to. It’s a quality Hoppé would have recognized.
EMIL HOPPÉ: Photographs From the Ballets Russes
At Museum of Russian Icons, 203 Union St., Clinton, through March 8. 978-598-5000, www.museumofrussianicons.org
LEGENDS: The Sports Photography of Walter Iooss
At Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London, Conn., through Jan. 12. 860-443-2545, www.lymanallyn.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.