What I really loved about this exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum was the story told about each photo, about each photographer and about how and why they made or captured the photo. I was able to spend a good amount of time with most all the images, looking at them and then reading about them which gave me a deeper understanding about the historical context, the photographer’s views and the reasons why each photographer worked within the genre of sports photography, what they looked for and whose work they were inspired by. I was excited to view this exhibit but I had not been expected to be so absorbed by it. I’m not a sports fanatic in the least but I do love photography and the power behind images that capture the magic and majesty of the sports player in motion and in stillness.
Although I tend to love taking photos of work at exhibitions, particularly those that restrict them, (heh) I went to this one knowing that I wanted to take everything in and not be distracted by the pressure to capture anything at all. So much work had already gone into the images selected for this show. I just wanted to take it all in.
The only photo I did take was of an image in the very beginning of the exhibit of a man named Javan Emory by an anonymous photographer. The monochromatic photo of a Black man with the catcher’s mask on, posed firmly like a tree taken between the 1870s-180s was irresistible to me. The fact that the photographer was unknown made it all the more necessary to sneak a shot, though of course the image can be found by quickly Googling the name Javan Emory. Here’s what really gripped me when I read the card about Emory.
“Javan Van Emory was a celebrated catcher at a time when catching was dangerous and required real courage. His capabilities as a catcher during an exhibition game for a National League “proved to be so threatening that Major league baseball drew the color line in direct response.” It also goes on to describe that the regard that fans, Black and White had for him was also reflected in the unknown photographers use of dramatic light and composition as well as the “sensitivity to the different techniques required for lighting Black skin which, is modeled by highlight rather than shadow. It is also seen in the photographers decision to pose the subject in a forceful posture with direct eye contact.”
The image itself grabbed me immediately as I walked slowly passed early sports photos wherein players had to emulate movement to communicate motion at a time when photographic methods was not yet created to capture speed. But the more I read about the image, the man, the dangers of the catchers position in early baseball and the legend of Emory’s skill, the more I loved it. I wondered what kind of man he was and who he could have been as a sports figure if he had not been held back. And I was thankful for the photographer who honorably created this portrait of Emory and allowed his powerful dignity to shine through in one image perhaps the only one that ever existed of Emory, suited up for a sport he clearly had an exceptional talent and passion for.