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A Short History of Sports Photography
The history of sports photography is closely related to sports trends that have gained popularity throughout human history. From the early 1800s, the technology of photography took leaps forward and helped the emerging media, sports journalism.
The inspiration of athletics and sport in art can certainly be seen in the works of ancient Greek sculpture, however this type of expression was not prevalent in modern sporting venues until the invention of wet-collodion and dry-plate photographic processes. This process allowed studio images to be produced on glass plates and tin-types, but was not ‘fast’ enough for the ‘stop-action’ images we see today.
As the 19th century drew to a close, scientific motion studies of athletes were created in the United States and Germany in the 1880s, although the technology was not considered in sports. All this changed in the latter part of the century with the advancement of photography and sports journals. As the first sports journals appeared around 1900, the public became increasingly interested in sports imagery, which would often include images of athletes on the tennis green, golfing, or in pursuit of wild game.
The earliest contributors to the history of sports photography were concerned with the activities of the country’s elite, but after the end of World War I, readers of sports journals became interested in the professional athletes of American baseball and tennis. The majority of these early images were of iconic athletes giving the image a sense of action. Baseball players stood at the plate with bats in hand, teams lined up for group shots and so on, however the ‘action’ shot was still largely absent.
In the 1930s more and more images of athletes in action appeared in magazines, aided by the rise of camera systems that allowed photographers to achieve shutter speeds of up to 1/1000th of a second. This gave way to styles that highlight obscure subjects that suggest movement and ‘stop-action’ images of athletes. Photographers began to adopt the signature style and the popularity of the style grew rapidly as people began to look forward to the excitement of seeing their favorite athletes in ‘action’.
In 1954, Sports Illustrated – the iconic digest of sports and athletics – premiered and suddenly the position of being a sports photographer was thrust into the public eye. The magazine highlighted the exploits of professional and amateur athletes around the world, increasing the demand for the art form and its practitioners. By this point, the technology was more or less in demand, with fast shutter speeds offered in small, compact single lens reflex (SLR) cameras and models. The history of sports photography is closely tied to lens technology, which, as well, was advanced to provide the photographer with a wide choice of ways to narrow the perspective and use depth of field for dramatic effect.
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