the sports show

Reviewed by Connie Ann Kirk

1 August 2012       archive

This book was printed in conjunction with an exhibit of the same name at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts held from February 19 through May 13, 2012. The book was edited by David E. Little, Curator and Head of the Department of Photography and New Media at the Institute. As a result, Mr. Little would likely not be offended by my calling the volume a picture book. Its thesis is partially stated by quoting a line from page 72, "Since the invention of photography in 1839, photographs have shaped the way we imagine and remember sports." One important result, the book goes on to assert, has been the turning of athletes into cultural icons. In hardcover, the book is of the oversized coffee table variety and features both black-and-white and color images from a range of sports, including: archery, baseball, basketball, bicycling, body building, bowling, boxing, calisthenics, diving, football (American), golf, gymnastics, handball, horseback riding and racing, ice hockey, roller skating, shooting, soccer (football), swimming and diving, track and field, and wrestling. Like other exhibition companion books of this style, several pages contain one image with a caption, surrounded by a good amount of white space to simulate an exhibit wall and give prominence to the visual being depicted.

That's not to say the book contains no text beyond front matter, back matter, and captions. Mr. Little presents the core essay, "How Sports Became the 'Sports Show': From the Beginnings of Photography to the Digital Age." Other essays include: "Working-Class Ballet" by New School Philosophy professor, Simon Critchley writing about soccer; conceptual artist, Roger Welch's "The O.J. Simpson Project," chronicling his interview with the football player in the 1970s and the multi-media exhibit that came out of that; an excerpt from writer Joyce Carol Oates's "On Boxing;" and a section called "Sports Camera Technology" by photographer, Tom Arndt, that offers a summary of the technological development in sports cameras from 1898 to 1989. The book also features a six-page spread, "Time Line of Sports, Media, and Culture" compiled by art historian and institute intern at the time, Nicole Soukup. The timeline begins in 1733 when "The Boston Gazette published the first sports story in an American newspaper, on a boxing match" to 2011 when "Super Bowl XLV averaged 111 million viewers, making it the most-viewed American television broadcast."

In its review, the Wall Street Journal makes the comment, "The most intimate images may be those of boxing matches, studies in poise and pain." Indeed, there are several boxing portraits in this book. Interesting images to this viewer/reader's eye include: a 1912 Jacques Henri Lartigue photograph of the Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of France (98-99); "The Dive," a 1936 photograph by Leni Riefensthal showing the effect of a dive on water—above, at the surface, and below—with no diver in sight (109); a collection called "First Pitch, Mr. President" showing 11 different American presidents throwing out their first pitches (142-145); a 1945 photo of the Women's Professional Baseball League featuring the Fort Wayne Daisies, South Bend Blue Sox, Kenosha Comets, Grand Rapid Chicks, Rockford Peaches, and Racine Bells posing together all in one photograph (137); and a 1962 photograph of a television broadcasting a baseball game in black-and-white back when a TV was a piece of furniture making a sizable cabinet footprint on the carpet (221).

Mr. Little writes that most sports photographs do not lend themselves to critical discussion or art exhibits because their commercial purposes "feed on a visual cliché" (29). The same pictures are taken of a sport over and over again where the only differences are the athlete and the day—the "money shot," for example of a winning player crossing home plate or the finish line or end zone. He writes that, occasionally, however, "amateurs and artists have created…complex pictures with content that extends beyond the field of sports and reflects on culture at large" (29). If this book is any indication, sport is a subject ripe for visual art that one hopes photographers and others will continue to explore in fresh ways. The wide variety of sports depicted in the book causes this reader to desire a volume that might explore artistic images in a single sport over an equally long, or even longer, period of time. The technologies of motor racing and photography, for instance, developed over a roughly similar timeframe and would make for an intriguing study in this vein.

Little, David E. The Sports Show: Athletics as Image and Spectacle. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, 2012. 302 pp. Hardcover, $49.95. ISBN-10: 0816679371; ISBN-13: 978-0816679379.

Copyright © 2012 by Connie Ann Kirk

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