We don't regard ourselves in any way as sports photographers," say the London-based team of photographers Jonathan Anderson and Edwin Low.
In American Athletes, a collection of work that shuns the 10 seconds of glory that dog all representations of sports in our culture, the two photographers visually record the work, repetition, hardship and sacrifice of Olympic athletes rarely seen between broadcasts and sound bites. Their work details the physical toll of these athletes' work ethic -- from calluses to skull fractures -- in a successful attempt to transcend sport and portray the strength of the human spirit.
Anderson and Low shot every one of the 120 black-and-white images in the show over a two-week period at the United States Olympic Complex last year (see "Art of the Athlete," March 30, 2000).
The photographs add up to a vast visual narrative of effort, exhaustion and repose -- a story far exceeding the sum of moments captured on film. They used only ambient light, forgoing the cumbersome and time-consuming lighting equipment used in most portraiture. As a result, their work resides somewhere between portraiture and documentary photography and manages to present moments that are both posed and emotionally candid. And in the end, all the images conspire to say, even insist, that portraiture is an art form.
In a medium often defined by its very stillness and lack of movement, Anderson and Low's "Wrestlers Training" only begrudgingly resides in immobility. A wrestler moves with electric speed across his competitor's back and simultaneously across the print in a blurred explosion of tension and energy. The image somehow offers the mass, sweat and exertion of the wrestlers' bodies.
The paradox of the two-dimensional still image capturing movement is repeated throughout the show. The photographers' work transcends the confines of the medium and confirms their belief that black-and-white photography, by definition, cannot be realistic, but it can get to the truth beyond the awesome physicality of our world. Sweat and pain pour out of some of the images, and if you look closely enough, the sound of a competitor's grunt of exertion may manifest itself in your ear.
Anderson and Low are deeply involved in every aspect of their work, from conception to execution. Nothing is farmed out. There are no assistants. The two artists process their own images, working and reworking each print until it meets every one of their visual and aesthetic requirements. This intimate involvement extends into the gallery. The two photographers acted as curators for the show, working in a highly detailed fashion that mirrors their insistence on processing the photographs they create. And the resulting progression of images -- some side by side, others stacked, doubled or quadrupled -- speaks in their own particular visual idiom.
One grouping of four images closely amplifies athletes' hands and feet, the tools of their craft. The prints are a visual inventory of limbs, a bodily toolbox that manages to express who these athletes are and the hardships they willingly endure. In "Bandaged Foot -- Richard An, Taekwondo Athlete," the three middle toes are taped together, flanked by the big and little toe, and the viewer is forced to recognize the mangled foot as the Ttaekwondo athlete's primary mode of expression.
In the succession of images, Anderson and Low establish visual themes and then purposefully disrupt these motifs. "James Gregory, Modern Pentathlete" interrupts the powerful flow of sheer physicality with a head shot of a fencer behind the mesh of his face cage, the white of his neck guard darkened from the preceding workout. Through the mesh, the visual echo of his human face resonates almost imperceptibly. There is an intense visual discipline in the work -- in the black-and-white tones and use of space -- that speaks eloquently of the discipline and relentless toil these athletes embody.
Anderson and Low have been collaborating with athletes for the last three years to create images that veer away from mere competition and present a visual cartography of the athletes' souls. Against the backdrop of drugs and greed plaguing modern sports, one would assume that it is difficult to maintain the romantic vision presented in the photographs on display. But not for Anderson and Low. "The more nonsense one hears of money and corruption in sports, the more impressed we both are by the purity that we see evidenced in these individuals," says Anderson. "We don't really care whether somebody wins a gold medal; they are all heroes to us. They are all genuinely heroes."