A Short History of Sports Photography

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The history of sports photography is firmly related to the trends of sport gaining popularity throughout human history. The expertise of photography from the early 1800s onward dove forward in bounds and aided an emerging media, sporting journalism.

The stimulation of athletics and sport in art can unquestionably be seen in the work of the ancient Greek masters of sculpture, conversely this type of countenance was not as rampant in modern sporting venues until the invention of wet-collodion and dry-plate photographic processes. These procedures allowed for posed studio images on glass plates and tin-types, but were just not ‘fast’ enough for the ‘stop-action’ images we are used to seeing today.

As the 19th Century was coming to a close, in the 1880s scientific motion studies of athletes in action were formed in the United States and Germany, the technology was still not considered on the sporting field.

This all altered with the expansion of photography and sports journals in the last part of the century. As the first sports journals began to emerge around 1900, the public became more and more interested in the sports image, which often would include images of players on the tennis green, golfing or on the hunt for wild game.

In the history of sports photography, the initial of contributors were more concerned with the activities of the country elite, but by the end of World War I, readers of sporting journals were becoming attentive in the professional athletes of American baseball and tennis.

The majority of these early images were of prominent players in posed situations, giving the sense of action. Baseball players were modelled with bat in hand at the plate, teams were lined up for group shots and so forth, however the ‘action’ shot was still not widely seen.

With the 1930s more and more images of athletes in action were performing in magazines, assisted in their growth through camera systems allowing photographers shutter speeds up to 1/1000th of a second.

This gave way to elegances highlighting blurred subjects signifying movement and ‘stop-action’ images of the athlete in activity. Photographers began adopting signature styles and the reputation of the genre began to grow rapidly as the public began to expect the excitement of seeing their favoured athletes in ‘action.’

In 1954, Sports Exemplified – the vaunted digest of sports and athletics – premiered and abruptly the position of being a sports photographer became even more engrained in the public eye.

The magazine highlighted the exploits and professional and amateur athletes the world over, amassed the need for the art form and those who practiced it. By this point, technology had more or less caught up with demand, with the advent of small, dense single lens reflex (SLR) cameras and the fast shutter speeds offered in the models.

The history of sports photography is powerfully tied to lens technology, as well, had progressive to offer the photographer a wide choice of methods to compress perspective and using depth of field for theatrical effect.

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