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OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — With very little exception, sports are all about motion. The thrills and excitements of a game are in the leaps, swings, sprints, and throws, the most legendary moments fit more for video playback and highlight reels than for the still frame.

Most sports photography, then, is focused on capturing a snapshot of that action. The usual goal is to imply the movement and the speed and the split-second accomplishment or failure as it happens inside the fray, and above all else, to simply show the athletes and to track the progression on the court or the field.

So when someone like Walter Iooss Jr. stepped into the world of sports photography with a shockingly artistic eye and a focus on the intimate, the internal, and the deeply human elements of the players themselves, it’s not surprising that he changed that genre.

Oklahoma City Museum of Art’s new exhibition, “The Perfect Shot,” is a staggering retrospective of the career of arguably the most respected, influential, and artistically minded photographer that the sports world has ever seen. Spanning more than 60 years, Iooss’s (still ongoing) professional life has seen him shooting Olympians, superstars, and stone-cold legends, as well as sports-loving children, amateurs, and anonymous competitors alike, all in service of capturing not just the action and the thrills, but the full range of distinctly human emotion inside the game.

Walter loose
Exhibit portrait of Walter Iooss, Jr. (BRETT FIELDCAMP/Okla City Free Press)

Emotional Relation

With more than 80 photographs covering a wide range of sports, subjects, and even evolving technologies and film advancements, it would be easy for this exhibition to feel disjointed or randomly assembled from Iooss’s countless works, but the OKCMOA staff has expertly grouped and matched the pieces into a singular through line.

“We’ve organized it by emotion,” exhibit curator Bryn Schockmel explained. “So we’ve got Anticipation, then Perseverance, Triumph, Disappointment, and Reflection. And the thinking behind that was that not everybody who comes is necessarily going to be a sports fan or know a lot about sports. But I feel like the emotions are something we can all connect to.”

This emotionally oriented approach allows for a number of strikingly matched pairs through the exhibit, with shots of Hall of Famers hung directly beside amateur athletes displaying the same joys, frustrations, and hardened spirits felt across all levels of sports competition. A hazy black-and-white still of Tiger Woods is placed alongside an equally deep black-and-white shot of an unnamed Cuban boy on a Havana street. The boy is raising a wooden-plank bat, presumably awaiting a pitch, while Woods has raised his hand, as if asking for quiet for an unseen crowd. Both subjects are focused and determined just the same.

Walter loose
Credit: Walter Iooss Jr., Edwin Moses, Irvine, California, 1991. Inkjet print, 14 7/8 x 22 in. Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Gift of Chetan Patel in honor of the Museum’s 75th anniversary, 2019.224 © Walter Iooss Jr.

Anticipation

Though the title “Anticipation” is given only to the first gallery of the exhibit, it’s a clear running theme throughout the entire collection. Iooss has a knack for capturing the in-between moments in the action, the slow-motion seconds before a catch or the endless time spent waiting on the bench. 

In one of the most exhilarating shots in the show, basketball giants Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell gaze directly upward at a ball completely outside the frame, leaving the two legends frozen in a moment of rapt attention and focus that would no doubt have lasted only a second on the court. In another, the 1979 Patriots sit wrapped in blankets, waiting to play in a snowy downpour that likely felt like a frigid eternity.

This anticipatory theme is appropriate for a show that it has taken OKCMOA years to fully realize.

All but ten of the photographs on display are owned by the museum, gathered over a number of years through donations and acquisitions, slowly building up an exhibit-worthy collection of Iooss’s works.

According to Schockmel, however, those last 10 that they currently have on loan for the show were of particular importance.

“My goal when seeking out the loans,” she said, “was to get more photos of contemporary athletes, because Walter is still active today, but we didn’t have many photos of athletes from sort of my generation, and to get more photos of female athletes.”

Walter loose
Exhibit photo of “Havana, Cuba” by Walter Iooss Jr. and part of the OKCMOA exhibit on the photographer opening March 5. (BRETT FIELDCAMP/Okla City Free Press)

Superheroes

Iooss claims that he views sports stars and athletes as real-life superheroes performing awe-inspiring feats, and that he tries to capture them in a reverent, larger-than-life way.

The shots themselves tell a different story, though, one of humanity, effort, and in many cases, vulnerability. Some of the most powerful shots are the emotionally charged stills in the “Disappointment” gallery, and even many of his most famous and memorable photos convey a genuine sense of isolation.

The lush, deeply colorful, upside-down shot of diving great Greg Louganis is not just a technical showcase, but also a portrait of a ceaselessly focused master of his craft, alone against a blacked-out, nebulous world.

Walter loose
Credit: Walter Iooss Jr., “The Blue Dunk,” Michael Jordan, Lisle, Illinois, 1987. Archival pigment print, 14¾ x 22 in. Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Gift of Chetan Patel in honor of the Museum’s 75th anniversary, 2019.221. © Walter Iooss Jr.

Even the near-mythical “Blue Dunk,” featuring Michael Jordan soaring towards the basket above a solid blue court, seemingly competing against his own shadow, stands as a statement of an athlete at the top of his game still pushing against his own standards and expectations.

This level of artistry and subtext is not something you’d normally expect from sports photography, but it perfectly justifies the placement of Iooss’s work next to the museum’s collection of paintings and sculptures.

And still, many of the exhibit’s best photos (and many of Iooss’s own personal favorites) are the intimate and candid shots of the athletes outside of competition. Muhammad Ali, well past his fighting prime, at home with a bicycle, Jordan smiling wide and smoking a cigar, or LeBron James, eyes closed, in close-up profile, all exemplify that reverence for which Iooss aims.

“The Perfect Shot: Walter Iooss Jr. and the Art of Sports Photography” runs from March 5th to September 4th at Oklahoma City Museum of Art.

For tickets, schedules, and information, visit okcmoa.com.


Last Updated March 8, 2022, 8:56 AM by Brett Dickerson – Editor