Art of Athletics Evident in New Photo Exhibit
Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston, 1965.
(Photo by Neil Leifer, courtesy of Annenberg Space for Photography)
"There is only one whack at the home run to win the game, and you have to be right the first time."
It is one thing to simply witness that home run, but a sports photographer's job is to capture that moment for posterity. Walter Iooss and Neil Leifer not only captured many of those moments, they have done so with an artful grace rarely seen in sports photography.
The above quotation comes from a film feature that accompanies the new exhibition Sport: Iooss and Leifer, which opened this past weekend at the Annenberg Space for Photography. The exhibition showcases the work of these two preeminent sports photographers, whose portfolios include most of the iconic sports moments and figures from the 1960s until today.
The two have very different styles, but the joint exhibition works better than separate solo shows: each man's images plays off the nuances of the other to reveal an artistic strength to their photography not truly appreciated on the pages of Sports Illustrated.
Leifer's photographs tend to go for the "moment," recreating the feeling of witnessing history and knowing that moment will never happen again. In a shot from the 1973 Kentucky Derby, Leifer's camera is practically on the track, seemingly seconds from being trampled by the lone Secretariat, barreling down the final stretch to his record-setting win.
He covered many sports since his start in 1961 at the age of 17, but Leifer's shots of Muhammad Ali's decisive victories are his masterpieces. "Without getting into the sports argument about whether he was the greatest athlete of all time, he was the greatest subject of all time," Leifer explained about photographing his favorite subject, "he transcended boxing."
Leifer's best-known photo of Ali captured the heavyweight champion immediately after his knock-out of Sonny Liston. With the camera at ring level, Leifer perfect captured the moment immediately after Liston fell, with Ali taunting him, mouth wide open and staring down his opponent. The photographer throws his own jab: the image shows a line of defeated photographers on the opposite side of the ring, looking as if they had just been knocked out too, knowing that Leifer got the shot they wanted.
Iooss (pronounced "yose") also captured many of the same moments and icons, including Ali, but his style is more cerebral.
His photographs depict sport's impact on the athletes, evoking through eyes and body language their emotions--motivation, confidence, or even defeat. Even when photographing superstar names like Michael Jordan and Brett Favre, his portraits seem to bring the athletes down to a human level.
As such, Iooss' body of work demonstrates the universality of sport: the athletic intensity coursing through the veins of our idols is the same seen in the eyes of children playing stickball in Cuba. Iooss is also known for a series of photo collages, combining his photographs with political and social messages to reflect sports' impact on humanity.
For example, the exhibition features a 1999 photo collage from one of Iooss' images of Cuban children, a shot of a shirtless boy playing stickball, poised to hit a ball of tape as his friends look on. Around the print, Iooss plastered political newspaper headlines, such as "It's going to rain money in Cuba" and "These events could not have taken place without the complicity of the U.S." Juxtaposed with the distressing reminders of Cuba's political state is the look of hope on the face of the batter, as if he is going to follow the ball he hits all the way to the major leagues.
Accompanying the 80 prints in the exhibition is a digital slideshow that plays in the gallery's central film space, which is not to be missed. The slideshow features images not printed in the exhibition and interviews with Iooss, Leifer, as well as many prominent athletes, that reveal many remarkable anecdotes about the craft behind the photography.
Even if you can't name the subjects of the photographs without reading the labels or you have long forgotten the historic moments captured, you will get chills from the feeling of struggle and triumph that exudes from Iooss' and Leifer's photographs. Sports fan or not, the exhibition is not to be missed.
"Sport: Iooss and Leifer" runs through March 7, 2010 at the Annenberg Space for Photography, 2000 Avenue of the Stars, Century City, Los Angeles, CA. For more information, visit their website at www.annenbergspaceforphotography.com.