- “Sport: Iooss & Leifer”
The Annenberg Space for Photography’s exhibit “Sport: Iooss and Leifer” aimed to inspire conversation about society’s fascination with sport. With eighty large prints and 1,000 digital images by Walter Iooss and Neil Leifer, the photographs presented familiar and iconic sport images from the last five decades. Every major sporting event over that time was covered, including the Olympic games, World Cups, Kentucky Derby, Super Bowls, World Series, and heavyweight fights. Video programs supplemented the exhibit with features including the art of surf photography, the science of hitting, the role of women in sport, and the making of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. A lecture series accompanied the exhibit that included lectures by Iooss and Leifer as well as other photographers and athletes who covered topics related to aging athletes, the rise of ultimate fighting, and the Paralympian experience. The role of photography was central throughout.
The exhibit’s goal was to present compelling images of athletes and inspiring moments in American sport history. Many memorable events in sport history were included, such as Muhammad Ali standing triumphantly over Sonny Liston and “the catch” by Dwight Clark. Some images—such as those of Serena Williams, Michael Jordan, and Joe Montana—represented the grace, power, and strength of elite athletes. Celebrated personalities included public figures such as Frank Sinatra at ringside, Pres. John F. Kennedy at a ballgame, and athletes who transcended their sport such as Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan. Themes such as the athlete as hero or the role of sport in improving public well-being were less explicitly or successfully conveyed.
Both Iooss and Leifer began their storied careers at Sports Illustrated. It is evident in their photography and the accompanying video features that they are imagining sport in a particular fashion. The photographs are intended to “evoke emotion” and “capture the dream,” often by shooting athletes from below to make them appear more heroic. Each photograph is an attempt to capture sport in a “pure” form in order to be a focal point for society’s collective fascination with sport. A video that accompanies the exhibit, Inside Sport Illustrated, conveys the extent to which the images are mediated by emphasizing the importance of capturing the emotion, satisfaction, and heartbreak of sport contests and having the images “look the right way.” [End Page 300]
Several historical notes can be drawn from the exhibit beyond the events or athletes portrayed. Leifer comments on how a blue haze dramatizes older boxing photography, an effect achieved by 10,000 ringside smokers. The muddy fields and football players from the 1950s–1970s stand in stark contrast to images from contemporary football photography. Changes in the role of advertising in sporting events are also evident. From the absence of advertising in the boxing ring to the presence of beer, alcohol, and cigarette advertising at NASCAR or NBA events, the photographs not only date themselves but represent changes in the economics and commercialism of sport. The video Beyond Sport highlights the fight for women’s right for sport, including the importance of young women having role models and the role of women sport photographers. The video The Science of Hitting identifies the increasing role of sport science in enhancing sport performance.
But, given the mediated representations of sport, there seemed to be limited social commentary on the significance of sport in society. The images from the digital archive, such as Fidel Castro holding up boxer Teofilo Stevenson’s arm, do not include any commentary to contextualize their historical significance. Perhaps the most poignant images from a historical perspective may be those that accompanied the Sports Illustrated article on the role of Washington Redskins president George Preston Marshall in the team’s failure to integrate. But for those unfamiliar with the story, the photograph requires additional commentary to appreciate fully. It is true that athletes have become newsworthy in their own right in a way that transcends their role in sport. In this respect, Leifer and Iooss’ photographs were in large part responsible for the public’s collective image...