The whole idea of sports photography seems quaint, what with the availability of wall-to-wall video. Television is the ultimate motor drive; you want visuals, you just dial them up. What advantage could photography, with its excruciatingly slow delivery, enjoy in such a world?
None? Then why do we linger over these damn pictures? Photography is an antique technology that ought to have been made irrelevant long ago. Yet why is it that the picture of Dwight Clark's catch in the 1982 NFC title game, which you originally watched live on TV, remains interesting long after that event's excitement has expired? Odd, isn't it?
There's something about the way photography distills achievement and defeat (Y.A. Tittle, bloody and bowed and all alone) and organizes it so starkly within the borders of a single picture. Why is it that a single instant, out of all that constant and streaming imagery, yields so much emotion?
And how do these photographs accumulate so much information through that little lens? Consider the shot of Muhammad Ali, his arm cocked above the implausibly supine Sonny Liston—his ferocious arrogance spells out the generational unrest to come. That's not a sports picture; that's history foretold.
Oh, it's odd all right, a picture's ability to edit life, to articulate every moment of meaning. Famous pictures: Lombardi on his players' shoulders, Mary Decker sprawled on the track, angry and beaten, Secretariat so far ahead on the backstretch that excellence is revealed for what it really is—an elegant loneliness. Not documents, so much. Explanations.
That's photography's advantage, isn't it? So much clutter cropped. So much tumult made quiet. So much movement rendered remarkable in its forced repose. Odd: All that constant and streaming imagery—all that confusion—resolved into sharp-edged clarity. One frame at a time.
JANUARY 10, 1982
Dwight Clark displayed excellent fingertip control as he put the 49ers into Super Bowl XVI.
SEPTEMBER 28, 1988
Ben Johnson's world-record 100 at the Seoul Olympics was wiped out by a positive drug test.
SEPTEMBER 29, 1954
Willie Mays went to the Polo Grounds' wall to rob Cleveland's Vic Wertz in Game 1 of the World Series.
JUNE 14, 1998
Michael Jordan's last shot in the NBA sank the Jazz in Game 6 of the Finals at Utah.