The Sports Show
Athletics as Image and Spectacle
University of Minnesota Press 2012
Many fans store a vast collection of sports images in their brains. With just a moment’s glance at a picture, even a slice of the picture, they can recognize the athletes, the season, the game, the particular play that the photographer captured. I experienced this recently when one of my Facebook friends posted a new cover photo on his profile page, a classic shot from the golden age of American football. Cropped down to fit on the page, only the upper corner of the original black-and-white photo was visible, showing a player in shoulder pads and helmet, looking down and raising his right fist, as if to punch downward. I didn’t need to see the rest of the picture. I knew it immediately: the photograph of Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik after he had just put a punishing hit on the New York Giants’ Frank Gifford in a game at Yankee Stadium. Even though the photo had been taken eight years before I was born, and featured two teams–the Eagles and Giants–for which I have no affection, the image of this one play is lodged in my anterior cingulate cortex, able to be recalled in an instant.
Our experience of sport is mediated through images. Even when we have a ticket to the stadium, we spend more time watching the action on the giant screen than straining to see the distant figures on the field. But in the vast blizzard of images–the online galleries, the double-page spreads, the video highlights–do any frames qualify as art? Are there any sports photos that deserve a place in a museum, alongside, say, a Richard Avedon portrait or an Andy Warhol series?
David Little thinks so. The head of the photography department at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and a lifelong sports fan, David organized the 2012 exhibition “The Sports Show.” The exhibition featured over 200 items, including photographs by Avedon and Warhol, the 1927 Buster Keaton film “College,” and the 2006 documentary “Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait.” Over 150 of the images are reproduced in the exhibition catalogue The Sports Show: Athletics as Image and Spectacle (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), making the book an absorbing treasury of sports photography. In our interview, David describes some of those images, explaining what makes them compelling, beautiful, and original–in short, works of art. And we ask if it still possible to recognize these qualities in a sports photograph, in an age of jumbo screens and Instagram.