Lecturer Describes How Sports Photography Transformed Popular Culture
Providence, R.I. — Despite a lifelong interest in art and sports, museum curator David E. Little said he never thought about linking the two until a visit to a museum in Germany inspired him to create a new exhibit in Minneapolis that he calls The Sports Show.
An art historian and curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Little used a PowerPoint presentation to display films and photographs from his exhibit during a lecture as part of Providence College’s SPORT:ART celebration.
The lecture, sponsored by the Department of Art and Art History and the Department of Athletics, took place in the Ryan Concert Hall in the Smith Center for the Arts. The next day, Little offered a career service program for students, “A Career in the Museum World,” in the Slavin Center.
During his lecture, Little discussed some landmark developments that represented the transformation of athletic events from leisure activities to popular entertainment: the creation of the first separate sports section in a newspaper in 1895, the first issue of Sports Illustrated in 1954, and the first contracts between sports leagues and television networks in the 1960s.
Especially important was the development in 1925 of the Leica camera, Little said. Small and lightweight, it allowed photographers to shoot in low light and take multiple images. More significantly, it functioned as an extension of the human body, allowing the camera to go places a person could not — at horse races and at ball games.
“Photography became a perfect ally for sports,” Little said, “not just showing us a scene, but involving us in a game.”
Photography also became indispensable to the sporting events themselves. Little cited the “photo finish” between swimmers Michael Phelps and Milorad Cavic in the Summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008. The two seemed virtually tied at the end of the 100-meter butterfly until a photograph taken by an underwater camera captured Phelps touching the wall first, by .01 seconds, winning his seventh gold medal.
Sports raises consciousness
Through sports, people found ways to consider and debate many of the social and political issues of the day, Little said.
In 1908, for example, boxer Jack Johnson became the first African-American world heavyweight champion. Two years later, James J. Jeffries came out of retirement to challenge Johnson and try to recapture the title “for the white race.” When Johnson won, it triggered rioting around the country.
Jesse Owens’ victories in the 1936 Olympics in Germany upstaged the efforts of Hitler’s director of communication, the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, to portray the Aryan race as superior. In 1968, two black athletes gave the Black Power Salute as they received their medals at the Olympics in Mexico City, triggering further discussion about civil rights.
And when Israeli athletes were taken hostage and killed during the 1972 Olympics in Munich, it brought the conflict in the Middle East home to many Americans, Little said.
Little said the photographers whose works are displayed in his Minneapolis exhibit are not sports photographers, but artists whose work would be found in any collection. An example is the fashion photographer Richard Avedon, whose portrait of Lew Alcindor -- later Kareem Abdul Jabbar -- holding a basketball in a New York City playground in 1963 is part of The Sports Show.
Alcindor “could be a dancer in this photograph, standing like a classical sculpture,” said Little.
Little’s work on The Sports Show, which continues in Minneapolis through May 13, inspired PC’s two-month SPORT:ART celebration. After hearing plans for Little’s exhibit, his sister, Catherine Little Bert ’77, a College trustee and art gallery owner in Providence, developed SPORT:ART with Dr. Joan R. Branham and Dr. Deborah J. Johnson, art history professors, and Robert G. Driscoll, Jr., associate vice president for athletics.
Driscoll introduced Little at the lecture, noted the presence of many PC student-athletes in the audience, and discussed his own admiration for the boxer Muhammad Ali, whose status as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War prompted debate at the time.