Sports Photography

With all my thinking about functional photography, I couldn’t help but think about sports photography and whether or not it could ever be art. Sports photography, almost more than any other form of photography, is tied to specific events and is tied down by the requirement that it be true. We look to photographs to settle on-field controversies and stop motion so that we can see the detail of the action.

There’s a reason why the only sports photographs I’ve ever seen in an art museum are large-scale Gursky prints which, while they show action, aren’t about the action on the field.

EM Arena, Amsterdam I, by Andreas Gursky

While I wouldn’t call Gursky’s soccer shots functional, they do demonstrate my previous conclusion about how functional photography has to lose enough details so we can fill in our own. It doesn’t matter what game the photo is of,* as a fan’s-eye view, we can fill in our own experiences.

*Though I do remember studying and identifying the players—yes, the big bald Dutch center back is Jaap Stam.

Besides the Gursky photos, I can’t think of any sports action photo which would be considered art. Heck, even non-action non-portrait is tough. Nat Fein’s Babe Bows Out which won the 1949 Pulitzer is close since it requires almost no supporting text or context for most Americans to understand and, while not technically* a portrait, it’s pretty close to being one.

*For many people, portraits are strictly posed photos of people’s faces. These people have never seen Avedon’s portrait of Andy Warhol.

Now, I have seen plenty of artsy* sports photos. I tend to notice them more during the Olympics where photographers of the more obscure events often end up favoring more graphic compositions or exposure experiments** which don’t tell a story but serve more as examples of what makes these other sports interesting. I’m not sure why I haven’t seen these kind of photos become art yet. Maybe it’s because the sports are so obscure that most of us can’t fill in the missing details. Or maybe it’s just bias against functional photography.

*Artsy in this case meaning that the photo is taken for aesthetic reasons and not to tell a story. 

**Longer exposures, deliberate over/under exposure, or anything else which is technically wrong for sports.

As with government documents, I suspect that the correct edit could result in a fantastic exhibition of sports photography as art where, instead of reading stories about specific events, we experience a different trip through the athletic world.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

13 thoughts on “Sports Photography”

  1. Pingback: Pairings | n j w v

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