On the second floor of the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM), there is a photo of the 1966 NBA finals.
The Boston Celtics’ Bill Russell is guarding the Los Angeles Lakers’ Elgin Baylor. The two are suspended in midair; floating toward the rim, the stadium lights illuminating their teammates and the countless, pinpoint faces of the crowd. The image, like most good photography, tells a story, and this one feels like it might be from a comic book — as if Elgin Baylor, scrunched muscles ready to explode, is poised to slam the ball through the hoop, the word “POW” appearing in giant letters alongside him.
It’s one of more than 200 photographs—telling stories of their own—now at GRAM for Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present, an exhibition on display through early January. The wide-ranging collection, including work from across 175 years, is a mix of small moments and grand stages. In one, a Paralympian dives into the water, a prosthetic left behind on the pool deck. Another peeks at horses diving overhead, vaulting above the camera in the midst of a race. Others show Ethiopian stick fighters; a young boy before and after his first boxing match; a gymnast in 1906.
Gail Buckland, a photography historian who led a tour through the exhibition last week, curated the work. As it began, she compared sports photography to war photography—both are loath to offer practitioners a second chance at a shot.
“The exhibition is not about who wins and loses, or the superstars of sports, although there are plenty of famous athletes. It’s really about why we love sports,” she said. “Great photographers are able to capture that—something about the human condition, the passion, the play.”
There’s more than one way to view the exhibit, but that’s its peculiar magic. The image from the NBA finals, for example, is an artifact of sports history. But it’s also a remarkable frozen moment, an invitation into the photographer’s laboratory—to ponder not only the atom-splitting concentration behind capturing the image, but the careful alchemy of angles, light and color.
Ron Platt is chief curator at the GRAM, and he gushes over the new offering. As he began leading a tour last week, he said the show was so large that it was installed in both main galleries, which had walls erected within to hold the entire collection. A few moments later brought the booming noises of work underway from the chambers behind him, a work ladder and a cart visible just around the corner.
“It’s really hard to (organize) an exhibition of excellence on a popular subject, but I think I’ve done it,” Buckland said. “It looks beautiful here—it’s a gorgeous museum—and I just hope many, many people will come.”
The exhibition arrived on Oct. 27 and remains through Jan. 13. Sports photographers and athletes join a Nov. 1 event to guide guests through the exhibition. The photographs can also be seen in Buckland’s book of the same name, published in 2016 by Alfred A. Knopf.
*Main photo: Gail Buckland is the curator of the new exhibition at the Grand Rapids Art Museum featuring sports photography from the 1840s to the present. She is pointing to a striking image of the 1966 NBA Finals. (Photo by Sam Easter for GR|MAG)