Pedro, Chima and Daer jumping down from the rooftop of Melia hotel, Mexico City. Image © Tomasz Gudzowaty, Yours Gallery / Fotoagentur Focus.
While mainstream sports photography has become blunted by the controlling instincts of administrators and the ubiquity of same-brand digital SLRs, a select band of shooters – often focused on “adrenalin” sports that offer greater co-operation and freedoms – are finding new perspectives on the action. Diane Smyth talks to six of the best.
Having got into surfing before ever picking up a camera, Brian Bielmann began taking pictures with the idea of turning his passion into his day job. A quarter of a century on, he can look back at a career working with surf legends such as Bruce and Andy Irons and Kelly Slater, plus he’s published his images in 30 books and contributed to magazines such as Rolling Stone, National Geographic and Sports Illustrated.
Currently, he’s got a contract with Transworld Surf, and regularly shoots ad campaigns for Volcom clothing, along with commissions for Red Bull, Quiksilver, Billabong and DC Shoes. Red Bull Illume, American Photo and National Geographic have all given him awards, and last year he won the Whistler Pro Showdown for best action sports photography, pocketing $10,000. He says the gongs are less important than enjoying the work, though, adding that his plan paid off because he’s still surfing, well into middle age. “I love it. And who else is happy saying they’re still doing the same thing as they were when they were 20?” Give me 10 more years and I’ll be happy.”
Bielmann’s success can be put down to his profound knowledge of the sport, which helps him get alongside the surfers and anticipate both what they will do and what the surfing magazines and sponsors require. He mostly uses a Canon EOS 1D Mk III with 10-17mm Tokina lens in SPL watertight housing, shooting at 1/1000s or faster and firing off around 10fps “because it’s really important on some waves to show the ride was successfully completed”. Personally, he prefers single shots, or “big, bold images” as he calls them, and likes to photograph around the action to portray the sports culture. “Surfing is a lifestyle sport and I photograph it as such,” he says. “The things that happen around the act of surfing are as important as shooting the action itself; the moments that happen in between the moments you are expecting or anticipating.”
The late Andy Irons surfing at Teahupoo, Tahiti - a surf break known for its huge waves. Brian Beilmann used a mask and flippers to get underwater, and a Canon EOS 1D Mk III with a fisheye lens in an SPL waterhousing. Image © Brian Beilmann.
This intimate knowledge of the sport also gives him an insight into its hidden sides, such as what goes on underneath the waves, and about 15 years ago he started shooting underwater to show this previously undocumented aspect. He thought it would stay a personal project, but it proved wildly popular with the surfing magazines and has become an important part of his work. “My dream is to do a book with these images,” he says. “With surfing photography, a lot of people will look at how hard the image was to get, and to a point I agree with them. But it is all about how you compose the picture and what you can do differently, having a different vision.”
Officially, Lorenz Holder bases himself in Munich but, as his blog makes clear, he’s not home much in winter. A specialist snowboarding photographer, he follows the sport around Europe from Norway and Sweden to France, Italy and Germany, shooting editorial for Pleasure Snowboard (the magazine that credits him as senior photographer), and on the team for Nitro Snowboards.
For him, the best snowboarding pictures combine a beautiful landscape shot with a perfectly executed move. “I’m documenting the action that is going on, so the riding is the most important thing,” he says. “The audience wants to see hard tricks, or pictures that make them want to go out and ride a snowboard. If you combine those two things and put them in a great landscape, that should be a pretty good picture.”
Holder was a semi-professional snowboarder himself until a shoulder injury put paid to his career eight years ago, so he’s in a good position to understand the “tricks”. It would be hard to get to the top without a good understanding of the sport, he says, and it definitely helps you learn to shoot it much faster. He’s also been a keen photographer since he was a child, though, and has evolved a distinctive signature style using flash to highlight the action. “I try to make the pictures look a bit different to how a spectator would have viewed the scene if he’d stood right next to me,” he says. “I like to spotlight more important parts of the picture and leave the rest in shadow.”
Swiss snowboarder David Bertschinger Karg performs the Indy to Fakie trick in Ruka, Finland. Image © Lorenz Holder, shot for Pleasure Snowboard magazine.
Flash doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to catch the shot, because the natural light surrounding the rider can blur the action. Rather than simply using a single hotshoe-mounted device, he usually combines two Elinchrom Rangers with a number of Canon Speedlights, shooting with 1/200s on Canon or Zeiss lenses (anything from 10mm to 200mm, but usually a 70-200mm f/2.8). Holder continues to experiment, trying out ideas and learning through trial-and-error, but he’s not too interested in the video capabilities of his 5D Mk II. “A picture can describe a whole story in a moment,” he says. “But everybody will interpret it differently and see it in their way. I think that makes pictures stronger.”
Ed Freeman got into photography the hard way when he was 11, using a folding view camera to shoot directly onto enlarging paper. “I couldn’t afford film so I used Kodabromide, which has an ISO of about one,” he says. “That was a great education in shooting deliberately.” Today, he’s still shooting “deliberately”, whether photographing underwater nudes, the architecture of California, or surfers on North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii. He’s not a surf photographer (he doesn’t even know how to swim) and he doesn’t shoot sequences. Rather, he’s looking for iconic images that capture the majesty of the sport. “I don’t put my camera on auto and just hold down the shutter for 10 seconds,” he says. “So even though I occasionally miss a great shot, I prefer to do it the old-fashioned way – to take each picture on purpose.
Freeman distributes his pictures via Getty Images and sells through art galleries. He admits that marketing his work as fine art rather than sports photography affords him different opportunities. He’s happy to retouch his images, for example going so far as to move whole waves or graft different shots together, and feels free to shoot surfers falling awkwardly off their boards – something that the specialist photographers tend to avoid, as magazines don’t want them. On the other hand, he says, he probably pays more attention to composition and lighting than editorial surf shooters, inspired by classic photographers such as Edward Weston and Richard Avedon.
Carlos Palmieri surfs at Pipeline, the most famous surfing beach on North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii. Image © Ed Freeman, courtesy of Getty Images.
It’s pretty impressive when you consider he’s not in the water and not overhead in a helicopter either – he usually shoots from the beach, and occasionally from the top of a cliff, using a Canon 1Ds Mk III body plus a huge zoom, a 300-800mm Sigma. “I have a lens the size of a small ocean liner and a very sturdy tripod,” he laughs.
In fact, Freeman got into surf photography almost by accident. “I just drove by a surfing beach in Hawaii one day, watching these people interact with waves that are both fearsome and beautiful,” he says. “It’s an amazing sport to watch, I was hooked instantly."
His first sports-related assignment was at the Paralympic Games in Sydney in 2000, but it wasn’t until he shot a story on Kung Fu masters at the Shaolin Temple that Polish photographer Tomasz Gudzowaty found his sporting mojo. “From that time on I worked mostly on sports projects. This universal human activity fascinates me as a spiritual practice, which is not readily visible today in mainstream events. I made it my long-standing quest to photograph peripheral, exotic sports.”
Gudzowaty has remained true to his word, photographing subjects such as Mexico’s car-racing enthusiasts (for which he won second prize in Sports Stories in this year’s World Press Photo, and first the Sports Picture Story category of Pictures of the Year International), child jockeys in Mongolian horseracing, and latterly members of Urban Freeflow, the UK-based network of freerunners taking the movement in new directions. But despite the recognition, or the fact that he shoots regularly for publications such as L’Équipe, Italian SportWeek and Swiss Equestrio, he doesn’t consider himself a sports photographer. “I photograph people who do sports, not sport disciplines for their own sake,” he says. “This is why the portrait, as a very human-oriented art form, plays a more and more significant role in my sports stories. I am always looking for subtle expressions, through which the inner truth is revealed.”
Freerunning. Pedro, Mexico City. Image © Tomasz Gudzowaty, Yours Gallery / Fotoagentur Focus.
Gudzowaty used Nikons for years, but this interest in portraiture eventually led him to the Linhof Master Technika large format camera, shooting with very demanding low-speed, black-and-white Polaroid negatives. It means he can’t shoot bursts of images, instead waiting patiently and intuitively for single shots, and also that he can’t shoot surreptitiously.
“I started shooting wildlife in African savannahs, so it was natural to me to remain a non-participant observer of events,” he says. “But with a large format camera, it is impossible to go unnoticed. The more I progressed, the more I realised the subtle relationships between the photographer and his human subjects. Now I find it the most interesting and demanding aspect.”
Gudzowaty’s thoughtful approach also underscores how long he spends on each project, painstakingly researching the sport and its psychology before starting to take photographs. He works for himself rather than on commission, finishing his story and then approaching publishers willing to take it on. He’s also been working on a long-term project for several years, under the unassuming title Sports Features. It’s now ready to be published as a book, he says, and should come out next year under the title Beyond the Body. The title says a lot about his approach to sport, he says, as does his decision to stick with black-and-white.
“I used to quote the book, Tao Te Ching – ‘The five colours blind the eye, the five tones deafen the ear’,” he says. “Currently colour plays no role in my photography, because I believe it’s not necessary to what I want to express. Photography is communication and sharing. I’m attempting to hold a meaningful conversation, not dazzle the viewer.”
David Burnett is a legend in photojournalistic circles, co-founding Contact Press Images with Robert Pledge three years after winning the Robert Capa Gold Medal for his work on Chile’s 1973 coup d’état. But among his iconic portraits and reportage series, sport has remained a constant theme, and one event in particular. “There is something nearly magical about the summer Olympics, and the wonderful way you, as a photographer, are competing in your own sports-photographic Olympics,” he says, revealing the motives behind his search for something that would give him the edge.
So 15 years ago he started experimenting with the idea of abandoning SLRs in favour of analogue cameras, in an attempt to strip back the technological imperatives that have come to dominate sports photography. “Now, no event is too far away, or too dimly lit to be captured by the willing photographer,” he later wrote in an article for Zone Zero. “Lenses became longer and faster… And even as access has tended to become more restricted, the best sports photographers were getting closer and closer to that magic 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.”
Cuba face South Korea in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, shot on a Canon EOS 5D with a 90mm tilt-and-shift lens. Image © David Burnett / Contact Press Images, 2008.
For Burnett, what was missing from the action-heavy shots was a sense of context, with viewers being brought closer and closer to the athletes at the expense of any sense of where they were. Using a Mamiya 645 with short lenses, he had just one shot at the action and was forced to include much more of the field around it. Later he started using tilt-and-shift to direct the viewer’s attention within this wider field of action, and this esoteric approach eventually won him the World Press Photo for Sports Action stories in 2004, a year after he returned to Time as a contract photographer (and for whom he still shoots).
“For some pictures, being able to direct your viewer’s attention, or simply presenting something large format, gives the picture such a distinctive look,” he says. But he also likes to shoot the action off the field, using these “off” pictures to tell the wider story, because no sport is about action alone. “To look at those ‘off’ moments and concentrate on them as well is the kind of thing that, 40 years later, still gets me excited about covering a track meet.”
Swedish photographer Mattias Fredriksson started skiing when he was just three years old, and began photographing the sport when he was a teenager. His first full-time job was on a ski magazine at a company that also published snowboarding, mountain biking and skateboarding titles – “pretty much a dream job for a 21-year-old hooked on action sports” – and less than a year later, Sweden’s biggest and oldest ski magazine invited him to join. “That was in 1997 and I did three years there as an editor, photo editor and, in the end, editor-in-chief,” he says. “That was when the freeskiing scene was in its infancy, and I was part of the boom. Some of my friends were the best freeskiers in Sweden; they got sponsored and their sponsors needed pictures; I had the pictures and soon had enough work to go freelance.
“A great ski shot is a photograph that moves the viewer, but there’s no formula to how it should be,” he says. “I work in a business where both the clients and the viewers have seen a lot already, so my goal is to surprise with new angles, new techniques and new locations.”
Canadian freeskier Mark Abma in action in Gressoney, Monte Rosa, Italy. Image © Mattias Fredriksson.
He now shoots for titles including Powder and Freeskier, but the bulk of his income comes from commercial clients such as Salomon, Oakley and Red Bull. He also shoots adrenalin sports such as mountain biking and snowboarding, and says he likes to keep moving professionally to keep things fresh. He’s sponsored by Nikon and uses a D3s plus various lenses, always at high shutter speeds (“isn’t that very obvious?”), and his favourite images combine great action with amazing locations. Unless he’s shooting biking, he usually likes to shoot in virgin snow. “Most people love deep snow so I try to make sure we shred a lot of it on our photo shoots,” he says. “The hardest part of the job is dealing with weather, snow conditions and other things you can’t predict, but that’s also the beauty of it. No one day is exactly like another.”
Fredriksson started to train in editorial photography after school, but felt the course was “a factory for traditional journalists” and remains unimpressed with sports photography in the mainstream press. “There are way too many bad sports photographers out there, and the daily papers are filled with poor sports photography,” he says. “It seems like the news photographers are too stressed out to put the time into progressive sports photography.”
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