EXQUISITELY TIMED SHOTS

In a dig­i­tal age it’s easy to for­get the pro­fes­sion­al­ism and skill of his­tory’s great sports pho­tog­ra­phers, writes Mike Ather­ton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

It was a beau­ti­ful im­age. As if obey­ing an order from a legion of cam­era­men, Jonny Bairstow lifted Moeen Ali up above the tu­mult so that the un­bri­dled joy on his face would be cap­tured for­ever. Stage left, the um­pire, Joel Wil­son, had raised his fin­ger to con­firm the “out” de­ci­sion; in the back­ground the crowd had started to cel­e­brate too, along with the Eng­land team, whose mem­bers were jump­ing with de­light to touch the golden arm of the hat-trick hero.

In an era of the mov­ing im­age, it is the still that cap­tures the mo­ment for eter­nity. When­ever Ali’s hat-trick is men­tioned, this pho­to­graph — taken by Mike He­witt, Getty Images’ ex­cel­lent pho­tog­ra­pher — will be re­pro­duced. Or maybe a sim­i­lar im­age from Tom Jenk­ins, The Guardian’s out­stand­ing snap­per, or Philip Brown, one of the best cricket pho­tog­ra­phers around, or a half-dozen oth­ers who had gath­ered in the busi­ness area for the fi­nal mo­ment of the match. Take your pick.

All got their im­age, with slight vari­a­tions. This was un­sur­pris­ing: it was an um­pire de­ci­sion re­view sys­tem call, af­ter all, so al­most as if it had been staged. The play­ers gath­ered, watched the screen and waited. The snap­pers waited, too. Given their skill, pro­fes­sion­al­ism and equip­ment, it was no sur­prise that the images were out­stand­ing.

Brown tells me there was one other im­por­tant fac­tor: this was one of the few oc­ca­sions when a break for DRS had not brought the sub­sti­tutes, with their flu­oro tabards, on to the field with drinks. That would have ru­ined the mo­ment. Luck­ily, they stayed away.

Look­ing at th­ese images the fol­low­ing day, I was think­ing of an­other pho­tog­ra­pher who was not at the Oval. Pa­trick Ea­gar, the ge­nius pho­tog­ra­pher of cricket’s mod­ern era, has re­tired now, leav­ing be­hind a trea­sure trove of images.

Some of them will be re­pro­duced in a book, to be pub­lished this month, about the sum­mer of 1975, when Aus­tralia’s fast bowlers came to ter­rorise Eng­land, and the first World Cup was staged. Writ­ten by Chris­tian Ryan, it is a fas­ci­nat­ing study of Ea­gar’s art, be­fore the in­ter­net and the dig­i­tal age.

I think of Ea­gar as a pho­tog­ra­pher who spent time at the cricket, rather than a cricket pho­tog­ra­pher, such was his skill and eye for the mo­ment and its con­text. Com­pared with now, the early 1970s pre­sented prob­lems and op­por­tu­ni­ties. He told me once that at a Leeds Test in 1972, he had just one over to get a pho­to­graph for The Sun­day Times’s first edi­tion, as a courier ar­rived at the ground at 11.30am to take the film on the train to the Lon­don of­fices.

Equally, play­ers did not wear hel­mets, so you could see their faces and re­ac­tions; there were few spon­sors’ lo­gos to ruin the pu­rity of the im­age. The story told by Ryan of Ea­gar’s sum­mer of 1975, and the images taken on 35mm black-and-white neg­a­tive and colour trans­parency film, re­veal a dif­fer­ent era.

The im­age on the front of the book is one of his most fa­mous: Jef­frey Robert Thom­son in full cry, sling­shot at the ready. The front arm is out­stretched, taut and sin­u­ous, point­ing at the tar­get; he is look­ing over his front shoul­der, eyes also fixed on the tar­get. That pho­to­graph is cropped; the full im­age is re­pro­duced in­side.

The mak­ing of the photo is what was hap- pen­ing be­tween Thom­son’s legs, as it were: Ea­gar had no­ticed that such was the arc of Thom­son’s bowl­ing arm, you could some­times see the ball in be­tween his legs from a side­ways po­si­tion. He cap­tured the mo­ment per­fectly.

Ea­gar judges Eng­land’s MCC Pho­to­graph of the Year com­pe­ti­tion, along­side Chris Smith, the pho­tog­ra­pher from The Sun­day Times. I talked to them be­fore last year’s com­pe­ti­tion. What, I won­dered, makes a great pho­to­graph?

Ea­gar talked of the ne­ces­si­ties — be­ing there, form and com­po­si­tion be­ing sound — then the bits that made a pho­to­graph stand out, such as the un­ex­pected mood or light­ing, and then, in his self-dep­re­cat­ing way, of luck.

I asked Smith about his stun­ning pho­to­graph of Barry McGuigan in Las Ve­gas in 1986, at the end of the boxer’s fight against Steve Cruz in tem­per­a­tures of more than 100F (38C). This is what he said: “I saw this com­plete dis­in­te­gra­tion. It was hot, com­ing to the end of the fight, and Barry had gone. I could see it in his eyes as he was sat there with the cor­ner man tweak­ing his ears. I missed it at first, but when he came back from the next round, I had changed my lens and was ready. But of course I didn’t know whether I had it, and I re­mem­ber say­ing to the sports edi­tor, ‘I think I’ve got an ex­tra­or­di­nary photo but I’m not sure.’ I didn’t know whether he had blinked — and of course it was all about the eyes, the dead eyes ... ” He didn’t know whether he had it. In 2000, to cel­e­brate the new mil­len­nium, cricket bi­ble Wis­den asked Ea­gar to se­lect 10 images of the cen­tury, one for each decade. Un­der pres­sure from the edi­tor, he was asked to in­clude one photo of his own, and the pic­ture of Thom­son — the power and glory of fast bowl­ing, taken on June 1, 1975 — was it. The oth­ers are a com­bi­na­tion of the well known in the crick­et­ing world — Ge­orge Bel­dam’s shot of Vic­tor Trumper step­ping out to drive and Her­bert Fish­wick’s Wal­ter Ham­mond driv­ing through the off side — and the not so well known. My favourite of Ea­gar’s choices? Ron Lovitt, of Mel­bourne’s The Age, who cap­tured the mo­ment of the tied Test be­tween West Indies and Aus­tralia in Bris­bane in De­cem­ber 1960, the first tied Test in his­tory. Bruce Pos­tle, a long­stand­ing col­league of Lovitt’s, told the story of it two years ago, high­light­ing the chal­lenges that a ear­lier gen­er­a­tion would have faced, and re­flect­ing on the un­cer­tainty elab­o­rated on by Smith and his photo of McGuigan. Lovitt’s cam­era, a 5x4 Graflex, was known as “Long Tom” and for the whole day he had only 24 neg­a­tives to use. For the start of the last (eight-ball) over, dur­ing which Aus­tralia needed six runs to win, and West Indies three wick­ets, he had just one neg­a­tive re­main­ing. The first six balls pro­duced five runs, two wick­ets and a dropped catch. Lovitt held fire. Af­ter the sev­enth ball, as Joe Solomon ran out Ian Meck­iff to tie the match, Lovitt pressed down on his shut­ter. Did he have the im­age? Lovitt was not to know un­til he got to the Bris­bane of­fices later that evening. Look­ing through the neg­a­tives of that day’s play, he recog­nised the one of his fi­nal shot and held it up to­wards the light. His heart must have been pound­ing as he did so. A col­league two rooms away heard Lovitt’s roar of de­light. It re­mains one of the game’s most iconic images. Feel­ing is the Thing that Hap­pens in 1000th of a Sec­ond: A Sea­son of Cricket Pho­tog­ra­pher Pa­trick Ea­gar, is pub­lished next month by Quer­cus.

Ge­orge Bel­dam’s shot of Vic­tor Trumper dur­ing the 1902 Eng­land v Aus­tralia Test se­ries

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