Photos with a sports focus
Blink and the most graceful twists of a diver’s torso or the most elegant arc of the perfect baseball pitch can be lost; freeze that motion with a camera lens, and the image might be good enough to make a newspaper reader put down this morning’s coffee and take a closer look.
Photojournalist David Burnett, named one of the "100 most Important People in Photography" by American Photo magazine, has come a long way to be back home in Utah to hang his work at the Kimball Art Center this weekend, yet he confesses that his goal is no more lofty than to merely get a reader to take a longer look at his photos.
"Any picture, whether it’s in the press or not, what you’re trying to do is get your reader or your viewer just to hesitate that extra couple of seconds while they’re flipping a page or looking," he says. "That’s really the only thing a photographer can ask for."
At his Kimball show, "Managing Gravity" Burnett’s photos catch fine-tuned athletes mid air, revealing the skills necessary to nab world-class titles and break records in skiing, in jumping, in synchronized swimming. While some of the photographs are from Winter Games, many are from his work at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Greece, several of which have never been published.
"Part of the whole enjoyment of watching sports is to see good people, accomplished people, doing what they do pretty much the best they can do it," Burnett explained. "If they’re good, there’s something beautiful about the physical run of sport."
"My pictures I see as a way of showing people what they maybe are missing if they’re seeing it live or watching on television," he continued. "If you look at a diver, who can actually tell what they’re up to? I’ve never been able to tell. It’s so fast. It’s so quick. I’m always amazed at what the judges can do."
According to Burnett, one of the biggest challenges in finding a sports moment is conquering the physical details, striking the camera button at the exact moment a swimmer’s head emerges out of the water or a runner takes a spill on the track. Framing the perfect image, even after four decades of taking photographs, continues to be an adventure, he admits. "When a photo works out, I’m always both surprised and pleased that it does," he says.
But in this era of auto-focus and mega pixels, Burnett noticed a few years ago that some of the risk involved had been managed by technology, and that images suffered as a result.
To take a fresh approach, Burnett decided to forego his Canon 20D instant-image maker and reached back to his "vintage" camera collection, pulling out his tripod, and cameras that required him to load film. About nine of the images on display at the Kimball were taken with cameras that Burnett has owned since 1978.
"[As a photojournalist,] very often you’re faced with the same obligation of looking at things from the same place," he explained. "It’s nice when you’re able to take a little different perspective. What I found was working with the big camera on the one hand freed me, and on the other hand, it forced me to start looking at things in a different way."
The older cameras require more than a press of a button, he explained.
"Especially with bigger, older cameras that don’t have the nimble qualities of modern cameras, you really need to be able to figure out where something is going to be and be ready for it when it gets there, rather than just hoping that it’s going to work," he says.
Burnett quotes one of his friends when he says, "the best photographers are those who know how to anticipate what’s going to happen so you can be ready for it."
His remarks are a reflection on the mechanics behind shooting award-winning photographs, but he might as well be talking about himself. He anticipated his career choice early, taking his first photographs as a senior at Salt Lake’s Olympus High School in the early 1960s, and has since become one of the world’s top photographers.
"Other than photography, I really would have liked to have worked for NASA and built rockets, but no, I always knew I wanted to take photographs," he admits.
Within the span of 40 years in the business, Burnett has worked for publications like Time Magazine, The New York Times, and has collected a first-place prize in the White House News Photographers’ Association annual Eyes of History in 2006 as well as a first-place prize in Best of Photojournalism for a portrait of Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame.
He says he is excited about the opportunity to present his work at an art gallery without the frame of text, though he contends that it’s a "false ideal" to try to figure out what is and isn’t art.
"What it’s really all about is using the camera as a tool to tell viewers what you are thinking about the world and you can do that whether you’re an artist, journalist or documentarian," he argues.
Burnett, who now lives just outside Washington, D.C., in Virginia, has had his eye on putting his work in the Kimball for a year now.
"I’m really happy that this worked out and I’m actually hoping to see a bunch of friends and collegues I haven’t seen for a while," he said. "I hope it’s a festive and good time It’s really just a chance to show my friends and family what I’ve been doing since I left Utah."
David Burnett’s show at the Kimball Art Center "Managing Gravity" opens today with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. for members. It opens to the public Sunday, Feb. 4 until March 11, and will open with two other new photography exhibits including Nathan Thomas Jones’ "Scattered Shadows and Collected Light" and Lesleigh’s "Paris City of Light."
The center is located at 638 Park Avenue and is free to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and noon to 5 p.m. on weekends. For more information, call 649-8882.
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