BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Try to imagine sports without photography. The participant part, that’s easy enough. The spectator part? No way. Athletic contest are variously measured in innings, minutes, rounds, and distances. All of them are measured in images.
The most surprising figure in “Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present” isn’t the number of photographers in the show (177) or the number of images (230), impressive though both are. The show runs through Jan. 8 at the Brooklyn Museum.
The most surprising figure is that date in the subtitle. Yes, the first sports photograph was taken in 1843, by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson. Their rather dashing portrait of a court tennis player is the first thing a visitor to the show sees.
The surprises don’t stop there. The show includes many classic images one might expect: Neil Leifer’s epic capturing of Muhammad Ali in triumph after felling Sonny Liston in their second fight; a selection of Jacques Henri Lartigue’s delightful pioneering photographs of sportsmen from the early 20th century; Arthur Griffin’s dancer-elegant rendering of Ted Williams at the plate, “The Swing”; Nat Fein’s from-behind-view of a dying Babe Ruth, making his last appearance at Yankee Stadium.
But then there’s the presence of many photographers one would never otherwise associate with sports. W. Eugene Smith (an action shot of Washington Redskins quarterback Sammy Baugh)? Walker Evans (five guys playing pick-up hoops)? Alexander Rodchenko (something so counter-revolutionary as a horse race)? Susan Meiselas (kids playing baseball in Havana)? Catherine Opie (a couple of portraits of high school football players)? They’re all here, as are Robert Capa, with spectators at the Tour de France; Henri-Cartier Bresson, with a six-day bicycle race; and Stanley Kubrick (he was a photojournalist before becoming a film director), with a view of boxer Rocky Graziano showering.
That is a very diverse list. “Who Shot Sports” is as eclectic athletically as it is aesthetically. Besides the sports already mentioned, one finds cricket, mixed martial arts, mountain climbing, fencing, archery, extreme skiing, tennis, golf, figure skating. . . . You get the idea. Some sports do seem to lend themselves to the camera better than others. Thus “Who Shot Sports” devotes an entire section to boxing, wrestling, and bull fighting. What do they have in common? The site of the contest is a ring (a larger version of the picture frame).
Part of the canniness of the show is its defining sports so broadly. It’s not only what happens on the field or court or track. It’s also venues, spectators, and spectacle generally. So sports doesn’t just mean Robert Riger’s view of Johnny Unitas just poised to release a pass; if the composition were any more frieze-like, the British Museum could put it next to the Elgin Marbles. It’s also Erich Andres’s wonderfully unexpected view of fans’ footwear at the 1936 Winter Olympics or Jim Dow’s panoramic view of an empty Astrodome, shown in all its creepy grandeur.
Dow’s picture is in color, as are many others in the show. His is one of the rare color photographs that doesn’t seem somehow diminished. Again and again, it’s black and white that stands out here. Call it the ESPN effect. We’ve become so sated with sports coverage on our various screens, all of that coverage in color, that black and white conveys uniqueness.
Sports photography is most commonly associated with action captured. It’s only fitting that Cartier-Bresson, who made “the decisive moment” famous, should be in the show. A splendid example of visual decisiveness graces the dustjacket of the companion book of the same title, by the show’s curator, Gail Buckland. The Celtics’ Bill Russell and Lakers’ Elgin Baylor seem suspended above the court in Walter Iooss Jr.’s 1966 shot. It’s easy to forget that during much of photography’s first century, motion eluded the long exposure times the medium required.
Personality is so much of the appeal of sports, something the show recognizes. There are 10 Polaroids Andy Warhol took of famous athletes in 1977. Jack Nicklaus looks distracted. In an unexpected touch, “Who Shot Sports” includes 25 baseball cards. An athlete’s personality — and character — can come across sometimes even without seeing her or his face. Albert Watson’s 1986 view of Mike Tyson’s neck and the back of his head could hardly be more expressive if the heavyweight turned around.
Politics is part of sports, too, as are race and social history. Or are they the same thing? Certainly, all three inform Rich Clarkson’s view of the blank expressions on the face of the (all-white) University of Kentucky men’s basketball team as they watch the (all-black) Texas Western men’s basketball team accept the NCAA championship trophy. That was 1966. Two years later, John Dominis took his indelible shot of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving the Black Power salute on the medal stand at the Mexico City Olympics.
The Olympics get their own section, and rightly so. But as Dominis’s picture reminds us, the games are innately political. They became so as soon as the first national anthem was played. The most egregious example remains the 1936 Berlin Olympics, presided over by Adolf Hitler. A lightbox features a set of images from Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary about the games, “Olympia.” Keep an eye out for the occasional swastika.
Let the last word go to Robert Riger. What he says relates to all great sports photographs, not just his Unitas one. “You are in position for the picture you want, because in your conceptual design of the action, balanced with the style and skill of the athlete at that moment of the game, there is only one position. Yours.” Which means it becomes Ours, the viewers’, too.
WHO SHOT SPORTS: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present
Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y., through Jan. 8. 718-638-5000, www.brooklynmuseum.orgMark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.