Triumph, heartbreak captured on film

Washington Post
Sunday, August 21, 2016

As you revel in Olympic glory this summer, take a moment to consider the sports photographers. Their work is how you’ll remember the events of this summer: Samir Aït Said’s broken leg; Michael Phelps’s celebration during the 400-meter relay; Simone Biles, caught in midair during a back flip; Katie Ledecky, grinning, a gold medal pinched between her fingers.

Who Shot Sports, by photography historian Gail Buckland, collects photographs that show the triumph, heartbreak and thrill of athletic competition. But mostly, it focuses on the people behind the lens.

The book, Buckland notes, “places sports photographers front and center and puts them in historical context. The photographs are chosen on pictorial merit, not sports history, and the text addresses cultural, historical, and aesthetic concerns.”

Sport photographers’ greatest achievements aren’t just recording athletic success. “They are on the front lines of human drama,” Buckland writes, “witnessing and preserving bodies in motion, the refined gesture, the thrill of victory and the despair in defeat.”

In one stunning photograph by Gerard Rancinan, the French fencer Laura Flessel poses on a slate-gray plinth, lunging forward. Silver slashes and chevrons flutter through the air around her rapier. “Somehow, much of what [Rancinan] creates combines fun and profundity,” Buckland writes.

And then there’s Stephen Wilkes’s photo of Michael Jordan playing a pickup game in Chicago. Oh, snap: He’s slam-dunking over a scrum of kids, one of whom is so impressed his mouth is agape. What magic.

Or this stunner: Arthur Thill’s photograph of Jos Verstappen, trapped in his Formula One racecar as it’s swallowed by flames. His pit crew reel away from the fireball. Thill “shot twenty-five frames, not knowing if the entire area would, within seconds, explode.” Verstappen survived with burns around his eyes.

One day, you’ll have memories of these Summer Games. There’s a good chance the image in your head was born of the photograph taken by someone out of view. With this impressive book, those photographers have gotten their close-up.