November 10, 2010

What's wrong with this picture?

In today's cricket photography there's too much reaction and too little action

"What is the use of a book without pictures?" Thus, in Caught in The Frame - 150 Years of Cricket Photography, an evocative and sumptuously illustrated history of the profession he has served with such modest, noble and perceptive artistry for the past four decades, does Patrick Eagar quote Alice (of Wonderland and Looking Glass fame). He is far too self-effacing to make such a vainglorious claim himself, of course, but much the same can be said of cricket without photographs.

Has any sport been so blessed by those who freeze its frames for today and posterity? Not from where I'm sitting. Think of George Beldam's timeless snap of Victor Trumper literally leaping down the pitch to deposit the unseen bowler somewhere distant and decisive, the epitome of the adventurer; Herbert Fishwick's sublime portrait of Wally Hammond piercing the covers: left foot on tiptoe, right knee kissing the turf, handkerchief blooming ostentatiously from a trouser pocket, an affectation borrowed from his Gloucestershire captain Bev Lyon; Eagar's own priceless portrait of Garry Sobers executing a lofted inside-out off-drive as Alan Knott looks on, awe beating vexation by a couple of streets; the infectiously exuberant climax of the Brisbane tied Test as Ian Meckiff fails to beat Joe Solomon's improbable side-on throw, captured, fittingly enough, by one Ron Lovitt.

But above all, think Ken Kelly's matchless close-up of Bishan Bedi, a shot he researched and plotted for four years - bristling chin settling on right shoulder, right hand performing a trick with some invisible cards, ball cradled between left thumb and first two fingers, eyes narrowed and arrowed: guile and menace as art.

"I followed him around, studied him from every angle," Kelly told Frank Keating. "'What, you again?' said Bishan every time. Eventually in 1974 I got it. I could always sense his right thumb firmly levering the ball into his left-hand grip just as his arm unwound to come over, an amazing final unconscious check to establish that his purchase on the ball was exactly perfect. Or was I imagining it? Then, wow! Suddenly there it was on a perfect print! 'Well,' said Bishan when he saw it. 'I could never have posed for that, because I never realised I did it.'"

These monochrome delights were a passport to insight as well as enchantment and enrichment. For me they were the game's shop window, its heart, soul and business card. Here was skill. Here was vibrant stillness. Here was beauty.

Immaculately judged and instantly memorable, nothing better prepares the cricketing novice for the visual lustre of their chosen obsession than the work of the so-called shutterbugs. Yes, television and the internet have diluted their impact to a degree, but the torch handed down from Beldam to Kelly to Eagar has been safe in the hands of Graham Morris, Adrian Murrell, Tom Jenkins, Mark Ray, Rebecca Naden and Phil Brown. Whether viewed in the context of a newspaper, magazine or website, match programme or book, it is their work, not YouTube, that will underpin our memories of Sachin, Muttiah and Glenn, Brian, Vivi and Mikey, the Barmy Army and the Bhaji Army. Standards, however, are slipping fast. At bottom, it's all a matter of economics and philosophy, and the prevailing ill wind is blowing nobody anything remotely close to good.

"The essence of the game happens in an instant. You get no warning. You daren't miss a ball… I'd say it was non-stop"
Photographer Patrick Eagar on the commitment required to take great cricket pictures

THE OTHER DAY, A SRI LANKAN FRIEND, Mahendra Mapagunaratne, jabbed out one of his passionately heartfelt emails. Where, he wondered, were the images of cricketers that nourished and fired our embryonic imaginations? Usurped by celebrations and grimaces and way too much emotion, that's where.

Not that emotions don't have their place. In England, especially, they were held in check for far too long. Witness not just Jim Laker's expression as he led his colleagues off after collecting those 19 wickets at Old Trafford in 1956 - part-fatigue, part matter-of-fact indifference - but those of his seemingly unimpressed team-mates. But when did you last see a photograph that properly captured the full majesty of a Ricky Ponting pull at the climax of the bat's follow-through, with the whole of the blade visible? Or the uncoiled threat of Dale Steyn the nanosecond after he's unbolted a thunderbolt? Of the first 21 photos of Pragyan Ojha on his Cricinfo page, Mahendra further lamented, no fewer than 15 conveyed the bowler's reaction to taking a wicket, not the actual taking, the actual action, which would surely be substantially more interesting to the countless thousands who crave writing and photos that flesh out the scoreboard rather than parrot it. Then again, maybe not. He might just as well have signed off with a suitably exasperated "O my Beldam and my Eagar!"

Another friend, who just happens to be one of the game's most respected and experienced photographers - let's call him DT, short for Deep Throat - is even more aggrieved. "It stems," he explains between gritted teeth, "from the newspapers' coverage of football and the laziness of most photographers, who find it easier to wait until something has happened and photograph the celebration of it rather than the move that led to it.

"My motto is 'Action, not reaction' but without knowing what to look for, they find it simpler to capture someone waving their arms about (or bat, in the case of a century). If you haven't taken a useable action picture by the time the batsman reaches a hundred, don't bother. The honing of this laziness is to just sit in front of the dressing room, as there is then a 99.999% chance of the centurion pointing his bat in your direction.

"The photographers that join me on the boundary (sometimes, in the case of the agencies, for 10 or 15 minutes before leaving to cover another assignment) love football, hate cricket and can't wait to leave. They are unable to read a scoreboard, so have no idea who or what they are photographing, and being tabloid readers, "zoom" in as tight as possible to see expressions on faces, punching of the air, high-fives, etc. There is a 'technique' known as the 'Reuters crop' where agencies and easily impressed freelances crop the image so tight that it's hard to see what is happening, let alone what sport they are playing." In short, context and flavour be damned.

DT also bemoans the relentless erosion of aesthetic considerations when it comes to that increasingly lesser-spotted creature known as the "action" shot. "Non-specialist photographers seem to think they have to keep the ball in the frame - as with football, etc. This is not the case with cricket - and most other sports - but if they stayed for more than a couple of overs, gave the job or game any thought, and sought advice, they might find out."

And here's another trend DT suggests keeping a sceptical eye on: photographers who station themselves by the pavilion gate and snap batsmen walking back after being dismissed. "After they remove their helmets they automatically run their hand through their helmet-dishevelled hair. As the hand passes over the batsman's face, bingo! 'My agony' by Kevin Pietersen or Andrew Flintoff or Andrew Strauss' or whoever the topically out-of-form batsman happens to be."

Shortcuts are tempting, understandably so. Make no mistake: photographing flannelled tomfoolery is no cushy number. For a Test match, it's an eight-hour day even before you factor in travel, mechanical repairs, consultations with the picture editor and sports editor, wrestling with the latest software package, culling and uploading shots. In common with many, Murrell claimed to have watched every ball: "You can't just wander off and have a sandwich. You look at it brutally - what am I trying to achieve? Who am I taking this picture for?" Eagar rammed home the message: "The essence of the game happens in an instant. You get no warning. You daren't miss a ball… I'd say it was non-stop."

Regrettably, for all the evident industriousness, quality - of ideas, execution and editing - now lags far behind quantity. DT says he feels sorry for the fans who are being "robbed by this dumbing down of a great profession and a great game" - and all because the media's priority du jour is cutting costs. To which the only riposte can be: editors of the world unite - all you have to lose is your fear of depth, excellence and beauty.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton