I first begin this project in the summer of 1995. The Atlanta Olympics were a year, away, and I knew I would be covering them for Contact and Time Magazine, as I had for the previous three Summer Games. As someone who was not really a sports photographer, I had become more and more interested over that dozen years, in trying to find new ways to capture the miracle of sport.

Technology, our now constant companion, had blessed us each year with new and exciting tools. Now no event was too far away, or too dimly lit be captured by the willing photographer. Lenses became longer and faster (and heavier!), films faster and finer grained, and even as access has tended to become more restricted, the best sports photographers were getting closer and closer to that magic moment. That moment when the action, the tension, the feel, and the body, all come together to give the viewer an immediate look at what is really going on. Much of what was being done, good as it was, had a kind of "in your face" feel to it. Because the ability to get closer was there, everyone was taking advantage of it.

I started looking back at what had been done in the early decades of this century in sports photography to see if there was a lesson to be learned. Looking at what the best photographers from other eras have done is often instructive and inspirational. The tools they had were so rudimentary compared to what we have today, that they had to rely on their vision and ingenuity to make great pictures. (Can you imagine the groaning that would take place if you asked a newspaper photographer to go on a job now with a Speed Graphic and a holder with two sheets of film?) What I saw was something so old that perhaps it was new again. Context. A sense of Place.

I realized that much of what bothered me about contemporary sports photography was that in an attempt to bring the viewer ever closer, it often omitted the context of where, and how the event was taking place. I consciously decided to shoot in medium format, something which would yield a finer, larger negative, and permit large prints to be made with ease. I must say that the transition to medium/large format for someone who has spent a life in 35mm is a challenging one. But rather quickly I become very comfortable with the Mamiya 645 and Mamiya 6 cameras. They have certain 35mm-style quality in their ease of handling. One of the main challenges, however, is that with the larger cameras, you have only one shot. One try. One picture.

As in the days of the Speed Graphic, you load your film, wait, and then shoot. And clearly, the waiting and watching is the key. You know you have only one try, and your skills start to return. The sense of discipline, the patience to wait, and capture The Moment. Sometimes you get it, as in all photography, and most often you don't . But the exercise was very invigorating. I felt as if I had rediscovered a way of seeing that had been lost. Shooting with shorter lenses, I purposefully included more of the background, and this sense of place is a very strong element to the pictures.

My friend and Raymond Depardon, at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France had decided to propose to the city leaders a project related to the games there. Hundreds of photographers from all over the world would descend on Albertville for two weeks, each bringing long lenses, and warm weather gear. For those two weeks they would shoot picture after picture of the skiers, skaters, and other athletes going for the action pictures which we all saw in our newspapers and magazines. But, in looking back at those pictures, who would ever know it had been Albertville? It could have been anywhere. The skiers taken close up on the slopes, the skaters, shot tightly as they spun, the jumpers, framed as they left the ramp; none of them would be in a context to show the sense of what the city itself looked like during the Games. Raymond shot for those two weeks using a 8x10" camera, and his results are a view of the city which, its safe to say, almost no other photographer bothered to stop and look at.

In that way, I hoped to take some pictures which might give a hint of the sport, but in a way which takes you there to see and feel it. It was a wonderful project for me. Trying to see Sport, or any other subject, in away you haven't traditionally done is always stimulating and exciting. I hope this sense of excitment is something the viewer can share.


David Burnett, April 1997.

[Technical information: film: Kodak Tri-x. Cameras: Mamiya 645, Mamiya 7, Mamiya 6 lenses 45mm wide angle, 75/80 mm normal, 150 mm telephoto.]

David Burnett can be reached at: DavidB383@AOL.com
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