Every two years, TV watchers like myself take a break from Netflix marathons to watch actual runners and sprinters compete in the Olympics. This month, I’ve joined the world in collectively binge-watching the 2016 Olympic Games as they’re being broadcast from Rio de Janeiro. Inspired by seeing the greatest athletes from around the globe, I ran (okay, walked) the one mile from my apartment to the Brooklyn Museum to see its latest exhibition “Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present.” Curated by photographic historian Gail Buckland, this exhibit comes at a perfect time when professional pics of the Olympics have been filling our national newspapers and Instagram feeds.
Representing more than 170 photographers, this collection of over 200 photographs is divided into nine thematic sections that cover all aspects of sports, from professional athletes playing on the field to the fans cheering from the stands. The exhibit opens with images reflecting the start of sports (and sports photography), such as the works of Jules Beau who is considered the first photographer to specialize in shooting sports for the press. The many years of the Olympics are also well represented, especially through photos by David Burnett, Ken Geiger, and Bob Martin.
Though many famous athletes are featured, none is spotlighted more prominently than Muhammad Ali, particularly in the section “In and Out of the Ring” about the sports of boxing, wrestling, and bullfighting. Naturally, the boxer nicknamed “The Greatest” is also the focus of the exhibit’s greatest piece: Neil Leifer’s iconic shot of Ali standing victorious over his knocked-out opponent Sonny Liston during the first round of the 1965 World Heavyweight Title fight.
Along with the standard framed displays, the photography is presented in other formats. Baseball cards from the collection of historian Kevin Baker represent four New York teams: the past New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers and the current Mets and Yankees. Several glass displays hold original issues of “Sports Illustrated” and other magazines, including “Look” and its “Day in the Life” profile of boxer Rocky Graziano, complete with photos by Stanley Kubrick prior to his career as a famed filmmaker. On the opposite end of printed media, a digital presentation of Georges Demenÿ’s chronophotography combines several frames of movement, such as a gymnast swinging around a bar, into a single image.
For those who don’t sport an interest in athletics, the exhibit still has pieces for you. A series from Andy Warhol presents twelve portraits of Dorothy Hamill, Wayne Gretzky, and other superstars from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Meanwhile, a black-and-white portrait by Annie Leibovitz captures the typically towering Magic Johnson hunched over, dribbling a basketball close to the floor. But perhaps the most delightful discovery is war photographer Will Michels’ snapshot of a Texas college student playing Quidditch, the fictional game from the Harry Potter book series and film franchise.
And in true museum fashion, no visit would be complete without exiting through a gift shop. But in the case of this exhibit, the souvenir shopping doesn’t have to wait until the end, thanks to an Opening Ceremony pop-up shop located on the same floor. The fashion retailer is selling items from its Olympics-inspired Club USA capsule collection, which includes T-shirt dresses along with unisex tank tops and tees. But perhaps the best keepsake is the exhibit’s accompanying book “Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present” by the curator Gail Buckland. For those outside the New York City area, the book is also available for purchase through the Museum’s online gift shop as well as other retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
“Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present” is open through January 8, 2017.