Sports Photography and the Press: The Globe and Mail Photo Archive
Sport is an integral part of life and culture in Canada, where the development and celebration of modern leisure have flourished since the beginnings of formalized sport in the late 19th century. Although a number of technologies were used to record and broadcast significant sporting events, it was photography and newspapers that served as primary tools for sharing visual information and updates with local fans. If you missed the action from an anticipated match, you could count on the next day's paper to illustrate the highlights with a snapshot.
In 2016, the National Gallery of Canada received a donation of 274 press photographs from The Globe and Mail's photography archive. While this collection features a wide range of news-related content from the 20th century, the coverage of sports is prominent. These photographs present not only different aspects of sports imagery, they also often reflect the social and cultural dimensions.
Sporting activities have been of photographic interest since the medium's infancy and its integration into the illustrated press. Coverage of elite competitions has filled sections and pages of magazines and newspapers. The energy, excitement and spectacle of these athletic competitions have long captured the attention of both photographers and viewers, seeking to fix these transient and climactic moments. As author Mike O'Mahony notes in his book Photography and Sport, the development of modern leisure and sport coincided directly with photography's technical evolution.
Even though sports photography is a popular genre within the medium, and one of the leading platforms through which we observe and experience these events, this category is often overlooked. Many scholars and researchers have argued, however, that photographs can inform numerous disciplines of study. As sports historian Mike Huggins states in his article "The Sporting Gaze: Towards a Visual Turn in Sports History-Documenting Art and Sport", photographs and other visual materials can "cast further light on a broad range of socio-political and socio-cultural practices."
The contents of these dynamic, iconic and, at times, sensationalized images are more complex than they appear at first glance. Despite their pervasiveness in Canadian society, sports have not been equitable, and factors such as gender, race and class have limited access and participation. Since newspapers were one of the major vehicles for communicating information to the general population, these archived press photographs can reveal how the public image of athletes and ideologies of sport were constructed and defined in a historical context. Looking at these photographic representations, we can speculate on how traditional beliefs and stereotypes of sport were established – and upheld – in popular culture at the time.
The image of legendary goalie Terry Sawchuk of the Detroit Red Wings colliding with Maple Leafs' defenceman Carl Brewer was taken on 23 March 1960, at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens. Although the Red Wings claimed victory in this semi-finals opener, the Maple Leafs would win the six-game series 4-2 and later succumb to the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Finals. The image is credited to the Turofskys, who were renown for their dramatic sports coverage. The photographer successfully freezes the action and captures both players mid-impact, illustrating the physicality, and inherent danger, of men's professional ice hockey. Head protection was not a priority at the time and would not be made mandatory by the National Hockey League until nearly twenty years later. This image amplifies the degree of toughness associated with ice hockey and other popular contact sports.
Captured two years later, on 4 August 1962, athlete Emmett Smith of Weyburn, Saskatchewan, lands a broad jump at the British Empire Games Trials held at the East York Stadium in Toronto, Ontario. His arms stretched out to either side, Smith’s glasses fall forward as a wave of sand showers outward. Globe and Mail staff photographer Boris Spremo strategically positioned himself at ground level to record the jump face-on and capture Smith’s agility, exertion and power. This shot records Smith completing his 7.11 m (23 ft 4 in) leap, which earned him the winning title for the men's broad jump event and a chance to represent Canada at the British Empire Games held in Perth, Australia that same year. As for the photographer, this image earned Spremo the Canadian Press Picture of the Month Award.
At 16 years of age, Toronto-born Marilyn Bell became the first person to swim across Lake Ontario, completing her 21-hour journey on 8-9 September 1954. Bell's accomplishment made front-page news, with reporters and spectators commending her for her courage and enormous achievement. A photograph by an unknown photographer, taken several months after her swim, is a carefully staged, glamour-style portrait of Bell. The champion smiles for the camera, as she poses with newly acquired trophies from both her Lake Ontario and earlier Atlantic City Centennial Swim victories. This photograph contrasts greatly with the gruelling conditions Bell endured during her crossing. Instead, her athleticism is implied by her trophies and swimsuit. Although there were many photographs of Bell from her swim that made it to numerous newspaper pages, this type of portrait is one that prevailed in shaping her celebrity status and lasting legacy amongst Canadians.
The sports images featured here demonstrate two typical yet distinct visual tropes used to symbolize and commemorate athletic feats in the illustrated press: action and excitement versus glamour and poise. While both celebrate the successes of athletes, researchers have argued that these differences convey traditional notions of masculinity and femininity. Therefore, elements and characteristics from these historical images may help shed light on how public perceptions of sport were potentially informed – and restricted – by social and cultural boundaries through the press. For example, how were certain events covered, and what made some more newsworthy than others? Were hockey, baseball or boxing framed differently from figure skating, tennis or swimming? Are there discrepancies in how male athletes were photographed, as compared to female athletes and, more broadly, what can these press photographs tell us about the history of sports in Canada?
Much study and careful analysis remain to be done to discern how these images may have reflected the social climate of sports in a historic context. It is important to address how certain images perpetuate collective understandings and attitudes, as we continue to improve equity and inclusion in sport. As O'Mahony emphasizes in his book, photographs of sport "simply deserve to be taken more seriously."
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