The further back in time we travel in our minds, the more we rely on photographs to fill in the gaps. How many of us can remember much of our early childhood without prompting from the family album? In fact, what happened a half hour ago is for some of us a distressing test of short-term memory; only by converting fluid events into a series of images can sense be made of things that happened yesterday, last week, last year. It's hard to conceive of how imagination worked before the invention of photography in the 1820s.
Looking backward to explain this state of affairs, we can spot glimmerings of the present in the 19th-century work of Eadweard Muybridge and George Eastman. Muybridge was the English photographer who cracked the riddle of time. His 1870s invention of a rapid-fire shutter that froze action into thousandths of a second permitted anyone to see in a photograph how bodies really moved.
In an 1878 experiment that earned Muybridge world renown, he set up a bank of 12 stereoscopic cameras mounted along the rails of a California racetrack to prove that Leland Stanford's trotter Occident lifted all four hooves off the ground during the cycle of its stride. Our perception of time has never been the same; Muybridge's photographs offered visible proof that the world was made up of discrete moments, almost infinitely divisible. Stop-action photography, motion pictures and instant replay are only a few of his legacies.
Eastman was the American entrepreneur who brought photography to the masses. By pricing his 1888 handheld box camera within reach of the middle class, he not only encouraged a demand for his products among generations of amateurs but also helped to transform picture taking from a static act that required a tripod to one that allowed, and even rewarded, mobility on the part of the person clicking the shutter. The world could now be captured from almost any vantage point, from atop a horse or out a train window. By the end of the 19th century, thanks in no small part to the shutter-bug and the industrialist, photography had learned to dance.
One of the first to pick up the jazzy steps was Jacques-Henri Lartigue, a curious boy from an upper-class Parisian family who took his camera into the bathtub and the backyard, delighting in the ceaseless flow of novel perspectives that a quick, portable machine could capture. He photographed his nanny throwing a ball, his cousin leaping down a staircase, strangers out for a glamorous meander on the boulevards.
Most of all, though, he loved speed. He could not get enough of the many kinds of vehicles in which human beings were learning to compete—racing by bicycle, automobile, motorcycle, balloon, airplane. His camera documented with wide-eyed candor the accelerating pace of life in the 20th century.
As a group, these early images, taken mainly between 1904 and 1929, constitute the first—and in certain respects the best—sports photographs ever made.
New pictorial technology inspired new pictorial realities, and vice versa. Exacting lenses with various focal lengths, introduced in the '20s and '30s by Zeiss for sleek lightweight cameras from Leica and Contax, allowed for much sharper definition in fainter light and more portability than before. Modernists adored these elegant machines. Martin Munkacsi's picture of a motorcyclist zooming through a puddle, taken in the '20s with a Leica, must have struck Lartigue with envy.
Across the pond, experiments in the '30s at MIT by Harold Edgerton led to his invention of the strobe, an electronic light source that emitted rapid bursts so fast that it subdivided motion into visible fractions Muybridge barely dreamed of. As photographers learned to synchronize their shutters to this piercing radiation (and Kodak designed film sensitive enough to absorb it), photography in palatial indoor arenas became routine.
Certain feats from those years have seldom been surpassed. For her lavish portrayal of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Leni Riefenstahl directed her crew of 80 cameramen to film events from an array of fresh angles (the long jump shot from a hole inside the landing pit) and with striking illumination (the decathlon lit by torches at night). The sensuality of the black-and-white imagery in Olympia, verging at times on kitschy eroticism, has made it the most imitated of sports documentaries. The camera dotes on the sheen of Jesse Owens's muscles, perhaps the first time a white woman had dared to photograph a black man with such unbridled admiration. (Riefenstahl's supporters liked to cite her depiction of Owens's triumph—and Hitler's evident disgust—to bolster her contention after World War II that she hadn't really been a Nazi.) In both her still and moving images of athletes, she showed later generations how to glorify the body.