The history of sports photography is tightly related to the trends of sport gaining popularity throughout human history. The technology of photography from the early 1800s onward leaped forward in bounds and aided an emerging media, sporting journalism.
The inspiration of athletics and sport in art can certainly be seen in the work of the ancient Greek masters of sculpture, however this type of expression was not as prevalent in modern sporting venues until the invention of wet-collodion and dry-plate photographic processes. These processes allowed for posed studio images on glass plates and tin-types, but were just not ‘fast’ enough for the ‘stop-action’ images we are used to seeing today.
As the 19th Century was coming to a close, in the 1880s scientific motion studies of athletes in action were produced in the United States and Germany, the technology was still not considered on the sporting field. This all changed with the advancement of photography and sports journals in the last part of the century. As the first sports journals began to appear around 1900, the public became more and more interested in the sports image, which often would include images of players on the tennis green, golfling or on the hunt for wild game.
In the history of sports photography the earliest of contributors were more concerned with the activities of the country elite, but by the end of World War I, readers of sporting journals were becoming interested in the professional athletes of American baseball and tennis. The majority of these early images were of prominent players in posed situations, giving te sense of action. Baseball players were posed with bat in hand at the plate, teams were lined up for group shots and so forth, however the ‘action’ shot was still not widely seen.
With the 1930s more and more images of athletes in action were appearing in magazines, assisted in their growth through camera systems allowing photographers shutter speeds up to 1/1000th of a second. This gave way to styles highlighting blurred subjects suggesting movement and ‘stop-action’ images of the athlete in activity. Photographers began adopting signature styles and the popularity of the genre began to grow rapidly as the public began to expect the excitement of seeing their favored athletes in ‘action.’
In 1954, Sports Illustrated – the vaunted digest of sports and athletics – premiered and suddenly the position of being a sports photographer became even more engrained in the public eye. The magazine highlighted the exploits and professional and amateur athletes the world over, increasing the need for the art form and those who practiced it. By this point, technology had more or less caught up with demand, with the advent of small, compact single lens reflex (SLR) cameras and the fast shutter speeds offered in the models. The history of sports photography is strongly tied to lens technology, as well, had advanced to offer the photographer a wide choice of methods to compress perspective and using depth of field for dramatic effect.