In celebration of the World Cup, Sports Ilustrated posted a gallery of the 100 best photos in World Cup history. I couldn’t help but click and look at all of them since I’m always interested in looking at sports photography from an art point of view.* I was a bit disappointed with what I found. The gallery is a list of great moments and great players, but most of the photographs are more about documenting the moment rather than anything else.
*I’ve been keeping notes in the comments on that post of examples of sports photography which I also consider art photography.
For me, there were only two which I really liked as photos themselves. Both the Vava photo and the Maradona photos are deserved classics. The Maradona photo gets copied/referenced a lot now in soccer photography anytime a player appears to be taking on a whole group of defenders. The original is a great photo in both its composition and how it allows us to empathize with both Maradona and the outmatched defenders.
The Vava photo is just strikingly lit with not only a great gesture but the rim light and almost-silhouette and shadow anchoring the height of the celebratory jump. Both photos also show how great photos can be when they show the back of the subject.
The Maradona photo is also one of the few action photos which isn’t of a specific moment in the game. Most of the photos are of greta moments—including some truly iconic photos which are recognizable to non-soccer fans. The Hand of God is infamous and the Zidane headbutt occurred in the age of memes. These photos capture the moments at the exact right times and while I can’t call them art, they do count as great photos.
The Maracanaço photo isn’t the iconic image* but it’s a great moment and a great example of a photo which shows two players responding in the exact opposite ways.
*That would be the photo of Moacir Barbosa Nascimento from behind as he fails to save the goal. Which is totally fitting in how he took the blame for the event.
A lot of the other photos are reaction photos of either happy winners or distraught losers. Nothing new here and a lot of them are obvious photo opportunities. Many of these require us to know the context of the game to really understand anything more than just the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. It’s nice to see people celebrating and happy but those are also the obvious photos.
I was especially disappointed that the photo of Daniel Passarella wasn’t included here as I think I would include it with the Maradona and Vava photos at the top of this post. His expression is more than just happiness and speaks to how sports matters so much to so many of us.
What interests me most though in looking through these is that it forces me to think about how so many of the iconic photojournalism images are also purely documentary yet we have a tendency to treat them as something higher brow as well.
A lot of this I think is due to the fact that sports is somewhat predictable. You know where the key action will occur and you even know what kind of action to expect.* This isn’t even “ƒ/8 and be there” since the photographers are also all stuck in photographer zones. Unlike news photographs where the photojournalist has to get to the right place at the right time, sports photography just feels (incorrectly I should add) like something you need good gear and access in order to do.
*Although the Zidane photo occurred off the ball and is something which I wouldn’t expect to be photographed even though the photographer was probably following Zidane instead of the ball.
The other thing is that even in an event which occurs once every four years, a lot of these photos are of the same thing. After a while, goal celebrations and even goals look very similar and it’s tough to say that any of them are that much better than the others let alone being the kind of thing that stands out to a non-soccer audience.
Whereas with photojournalism, I think a lot of what we value in the photo is both the uniqueness of the image and the ability of the photographer to both get there and be able to take it. Everything we’re looking at here is technically good, it’s the everything else which makes the difference.