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Tampa Museum of Art's 'Who Shot Sports' exhibit portrays sports photography as art

This is a favorite of Dirk Shadd, the Tampa Bay Times’ main Lightning photographer, Ben Bishop at his net amid a fight’s flotsam: “It’s a hockey photo but almost doesn’t look like one.”
This is a favorite of Dirk Shadd, the Tampa Bay Times’ main Lightning photographer, Ben Bishop at his net amid a fight’s flotsam: “It’s a hockey photo but almost doesn’t look like one.”
Published Feb. 3, 2017

A moment. That's all it is. A moment in time.

A snapshot. Literally.

It happens in a blink of an eye, yet it captures so much more. It encapsulates a daylong event, or a yearlong performance, or maybe even one's entire life.

That's what a photo does. One shot tells a story greater than the split second of time it shows.

When it's done right, it's more than a photo of a touchdown or home run or dunk.

When it's done right, it becomes art.

"Sports photographers are artists," Gail Buckland said.

Buckland is the guest curator of a show running Saturday through April 30 at the Tampa Museum of Art. It's called "Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present.''

Along with it is a display called "Lens on Tampa Bay,'' which will feature sports images of Tampa Bay through the lens of local photographers, including Dirk Shadd and Loren Elliott of the Tampa Bay Times.

Buckland is right. Sports photography does become more than just chronicling another hockey game in November or a baseball game in August.

When you see certain photos, you know they belong on a museum's wall.

Like when you see Derek Jeter sliding headfirst or Serena Williams stretching for a volley.

Photos show important moments in our country about race and culture. That includes the legendary photo of Muhammad Ali taunting fallen Sonny Liston and the heartbreaking photo of dying Babe Ruth making his final appearance at Yankee Stadium.

There's black track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising gloved fists in the air at a 1968 Olympics medal ceremony and an all-white Kentucky basketball team watching the first all-black starting five from Texas Western win the 1966 NCAA Tournament.

There are two men kissing to celebrate at a sporting event.

Then there are moments of breathtaking scenery, such as "Freefall,'' a photo of a BASE jumper parachuting off a 400-foot peak in Utah.

"There's something about the still photograph that really locks into our minds,'' Buckland said. "No matter how many replays you see, often it's that still image that synthesizes the beauty, the grace, the power, the pathos of the sports experience.''

Buckland, who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., is not a sports fan. She is a fan of introducing art to as many people as she can. In 2009 she produced an exhibition titled "Who Shot Rock & Roll.'' That project drew music fans, and she saw sports as the next logical step to drawing to exhibits people who normally don't visit museums.

Buckland gathered photographs from some legendary names such as Stanley Kubrick, Andy Warhol, longtime Sports Illustrated staffer Walter Iooss Jr. and Time's Neil Leifer.

It also includes lesser-known and anonymous photographers who happened to capture the perfect shot.

Rarely are those perfect shots the result of a photographer pointing and shooting haphazardly.

"Sometimes there are years of preparation for a photo,'' said Shadd, who has been the Times' primary photographer of the Lightning for nearly two decades. "A lot of it is anticipation and the knowledge and learning where things happen on the field or on the court from covering it and doing it multiple times.''

It's a balance of anticipation and reaction.

"But the minute you previsualize too much is the minute the sport completely humbles you and completely surprises you,'' Shadd said. "Every night you can see something you've never seen.''

It's also about choices. The obvious is not always the best.

Take Shadd's favorite of his photos in the exhibit. It's an overhead shot of Lightning goalie Ben Bishop in the late stages of a playoff game against the Red Wings. Bishop is standing in a litter of sticks and gloves, the result of a brawl involving every player on the ice.

While Shadd was shooting the fight, he used a remote camera to capture Bishop standing calmly alone while there was chaos outside the camera's frame.

"I just like the fact that it's a hockey photo but almost doesn't look like one," Shadd said. "Usually in sports, your peak action is your better photo. But in this case, the frames I had of the fight almost looked routine. I've seen it before. But I liked the story being told with all that equipment on the ice around Bishop.''

So what can a photographer do to get that special shot?

"It's some combination of the composition and the light,'' said Elliott, who shot the Bucs during the 2016 season. "There are incredible colors and reflections and so forth. But instead of seeing 'the shot,' I see there's the potential for 'the shot.' And if I rush it, I'm going to blow the opportunity.

"What I have to do is slow down and really think about composing. Where do I need to be? How can I position myself to take advantage of all these puzzle pieces that has me so excited and then put them together in that one frame and actually get the shot I know there is potential for?''

When skill meets preparation and preparation meets luck, you get something magical.

"When I walk into an arena or a ballpark or Grand Prix course or a tennis court or whatever,'' Shadd said, "there's a part of me that thinks, 'Wow, you know the next greatest sports photo could be happening on that court in front of myself and all the fans and all the other photographers.

"Maybe someone will be in the right place and have the proper preparation and the angle and the luck to make it happen.''

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