Since its invention in the 1830s, photography has provoked a particularly spirited controversy within the larger confines of that eternal debate: What is art? Athletes, edited by Ruth Silverman, has just contributed more film to the fire. With 140 photographs (eight in color) of professional and amateur sportsmen, Silverman, a former associate curator at the International Center of Photography in New York City, has attempted to present a "relatively small number of images—those that are and will continue to be important and visually arresting apart from the subject matter."
Though much of Silverman's collection may be arresting, somebody should slap the cuffs on her before she creates a similar book on another subject that seems to go out of its way to exclude the acknowledged masters of a craft. With Athletes Silverman appears to be saying that only fashion and museum photographers can create "art" through a lens.
If you consider that more pictures of athletes are probably taken at a single Olympics than canvases have been painted in the history of painting, you get a sense of the dauntingly subjective nature of Silverman's task. And in some respects, she has done extremely well. Her selection includes many pictures of historical, scientific and artistic significance by some of photography's most influential practitioners. Athletes is a rough chronology that begins with the work of the 19th-century Frenchman Felix Nadar and progresses to contemporary American masters like Joel Meyerowitz and Joel Sternfeld. Cumulatively, the 143-page, $35 volume forces the reader to pause, take his feet off the coffee table and really scrutinize the work. In this respect, Athletes resembles a stroll through a gallery.
Hanging on the walls, if you will, are Nadar's clever self-portrait in a balloon basket taken in 1860. Jacques Henri Lartigue's Grand Prix, shot in 1912, presents the race car's right rear wheel and the spectators in a blur but shows the daring driver clearly as he hunches over the steering wheel. John Gutmann evokes emotions with his Depression-era portrait of a lunch-hour crowd of businessmen gathered in an alley to take in a stickball game. Bowling in Montana, badminton in Minnesota and soft-ball in Kentucky all demonstrate sport's influence on U.S. culture. In many cases, that influence was best captured by non-Americans. Martin Munkacsi of Hungary, who is represented by his 1923 shot of a motorcyclist splashing through a puddle, made a name for himself by being the first high-fashion photographer to take a swimsuit model out of the studio and onto the beach.
Among the other intriguing visions: An anonymous rendering of figure skaters captures their grace amid a sea of crazy shadows; Garry Winogrand concisely expresses the power and recklessness of football players before a Texas-sized crowd in Austin; Meyerowitz captures, in color, an amazing variety of lines and angles within Busch Stadium and beyond in downtown St. Louis during a Cardinal baseball game; and, also in color, Joel Sternfeld cleverly juxtaposes a brilliant Arizona landscape with a dilapidated basketball hoop.
Silverman's interpretation of art doesn't exclude whimsy, as in Eadweard Muybridge's 1877 sequence of an acrobat's handspring being interrupted by a pigeon. You can also see Albert Einstein sailing, Dwight Eisenhower on a golf course and Chairman Mao playing Ping-Pong.
While Silverman is free to submit athletes-as-art to any criteria she likes—including passing off a basketball hoop as an athlete—the paucity of work by sports journalists seems an egregious mistake. Nobody can argue with including Nickolas Muray's hulking Babe Ruth, but why an uninteresting picture of Bucky Dent by Cosmopolitan photographer Francesco Scavullo instead of one of Walter Iooss Jr.'s evocative portraits? Why are erotic fashion specialist Helmut Newton and artiste Bruce Weber represented when Neil Leifer or John Zimmerman, two artists who have shot sports for a living (and, like Iooss, often for this magazine), are shut out? The only sports photographer to make the cut is Winogrand. This is like creating an anthology of sportswriting and including Thomas Wolfe while omitting Red Smith. And with such limited space, why give us Einstein, Ike and Mao, while ignoring any number of famed pictures of athletes like Ty Cobb, Nadia Comaneci and Bobby Orr?
Museum of Modern Art photography curator Susan Kismaric says simply, "When somebody's really good, their work becomes art." What you'll find in Athletes is really good, but because of what you won't find, the book smacks of pretension and presumption.