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  • Photographs, Materiality and Sport History:Peter Norman and the 1968 Mexico City Black Power Salute
  • Gary Osmond†

This article considers the ways in which Australian athlete Peter Norman is presented and represented through the famous photograph of the 1968 Mexico City Olympic games "Black Power" salute. Photographic images are not simple, neutral, or objective records of the past; various material acts influence and affect the ways images are interpreted and read. This article will explore the materiality of the 1968 photograph with particular reference to Peter Norman, who is at different times, and in varying ways, both obscured and emphasized. A materiality approach contributes to understandings of the potential importance of photographs as sources. Most typically, photographs have been used by sport historians as decorative complements to verbal text. Borrowing from recent theoretical work on photographic materiality, by anthropologists and geographers in particular, this article sees photographs as supplementary to the written word, and offering new insights into how knowledge about the past is produced. [End Page 119]

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Norman, Smith, and Carlos on the medal dais, Mexico City, 1968.

Photograph by John Dominis. Courtesy of Time&Life Pictures/Getty Images.

[End Page 120]

[T]he photographic act is re-enacted with each editorial choice, reproduction and viewing. It coalesces our recollections into a virtual gallery distributed across the neural networks of millions of minds, and in the myriad books, films and pictures that succeed the fatal moment when the shutter clicks and photosensitive platelets react to light.

Patrick Hagopian1

The photograph of the 200 meters medal ceremony is probably one of the most reproduced images in the history of sports. But what about the third athlete in the photo, Peter Norman, the Australian silver medalist?

Charles Korr2

The photograph of Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Peter Norman on the medal dais at Mexico City is undoubtedly one of the world's most famous and enduring sports images. Snapped by Life magazine staffer and six-time Olympic photographer, John Dominis (1921-), it has been widely reproduced over the past forty-two years (see opposite). In 2003, Life magazine publishers included it in its anthology of one hundred photographs that changed the world.3 The image has become illustratively central to the event itself, yet as sociologist Douglas Hartmann observes in his book Race, Culture and the Revolt of the Black Athlete (2003), it is typically published "without any critical commentary or explanation, as if its significance were wholly self-sufficient or self-evident, a picture worth literally a thousand words."4 Its recognizability and evocative potency has led to its reproduction in myriad ways and places, typically in relation to the Civil Rights movement or 1960s American history but often divorced from its original context or meaning except as a point of reference. Tommie Smith, in his recent autobiography, comments on the proliferation of replica images, "on T-shirts, on posters, in works of art, on murals, on magazines and in books, and on album covers."5 Through this farrago of appearances, Hartmann argues, the image has assumed a "prominence and power as an object of meaning and collective memory."6

This article examines how these multiple appearances of the 1968 photograph contribute to the manufacture of meanings. Conceptually, it engages with materiality, a methodological tool with which photographs are evaluated as objects. Anthropologists Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart argue that the "material and presentational forms and uses to which [images] are put are central to the function of a photograph as a socially salient object."7 Acknowledging the well-recognized idea that "a single change in context can drastically alter the meaning of an 'objective' image," photographic materiality focuses on "acts upon photographs" such as the deployment of images, their manipulation at various stages of production and reproduction, and the context of encounter.8 Unlike conventional approaches to photographs, which emphasize their "stillness" or ability to capture and preserve a scene, a feeling, or a symbolic moment, materiality emphasizes change.9 Through their use, manipulation, and changing presentation context, photographs change and with them their meanings change. The 1968 protest salute...


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pp. 119-137
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