As the Sochi 2014 Winter Games heads for us faster than a Bobsleigh team, we get exclusive insight from multi-award-winning sports photographer Bob Martin on what it takes to get great Winter Sports imagery that stands out from the crowd
There’s winter sports photography, then there’s Bob Martin’s winter sports photography. If you think you don’t know his work, have a look at his portfolio, you may discover images lodged deep down in your sports-image muscle-memory from Martin’s coverage of the last 13 Summer and Winter Olympics. And if you don’t know his work, you really are in for a treat.
Martin’s work has been published in Sports Illustrated, Time, Paris Match, The Sunday Times, and The New York Times among others. This roster of marquee clients is partly due to the fact that Martin re-arranges our expectations of what a sports photo should look like. Martin’s image-making disrupts the genre of sports photography with unlikely images such as the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics Bobsleigh shot, or the Giant Slalom Skiing from the same event. And if there is a prize for the most Beautiful, Surreal Sports Image of the 21st Century, the deal is already done. Martin’s photo of a club golfing competition, shot when he was on assignment for the Australian Tennis Open, is a testament to the skills of the professional photographer.
You see, Martin is a craftsman. Part of being a craftsman comes from experience, from hours spent in the freezing cold at Winter Sports events, then having the nous to discover the best place to go, for the killer shot, to see the world in a way it hasn’t been seen before. Like his photo from the Engadin Skimarathon. Everyone had done the helicopter shot of the massed ranks of skiers at the start, but with his photographer’s nose (great photographer’s develop ‘noses’ as well as eyes) Martin found the place with the biggest traffic jam of skiers – they are strung together like yarns of coloured wool.
In the interview below Martin shares his insight on working with Directors of Photography to getting stand-out images in an age when there is a lot of good sports action photographers shooting for the agencies, and gives us a heads up on the Sochi 2014 Winter Games. Martin suggests that seeking out new, different kinds of imagery is due to the fact that there are so many shooters out there with good tech. Creativity, innovation, is not just a way of standing out from the crowd, in 2014 its one way of making sure you get your pay-check.
Bob, when did you start shooting for Sports Illustrated, and what kind of collaboration do you have with the Editor or Art Director?
I had my first contract immediately after the Lilliehammer Olympics.
How advanced where you in your photography career at that point?
Pretty good, I was a Director of Allsports which went on to become the sports division of Getty Images when they took them over.
What kind of relationship do you have with the Art Director or Editor when you are shooting for Sports Illustrated?
I report to the Director of Photography Brad Smith, my main relationship is with him. When I am working on a feature story I tend to work directly with a writer. But the relationship regarding the critique of the pictures is with the Director of Photography.
What kind of briefs do you get?
A good example of this is when we were doing a story on Lindsey Vonn, to preview the previous winter games which was in Vancouver. [We were told] ‘we got some time with her, go and do us a picture’ – that’s the sort of brief you get. Sometimes they give you a tighter brief, in terms of style for example, but most of the time you get a really loose brief and it’s your artistic interpretation. It’s the reason editorial photography is my first and only love.
Photos such as the Torino 2006 Bobsleigh shot are graphic and textural. What fascinates you about these kinds of images?
I like to create pictures that have a great sense of place in my editorial photography. I think action photography now is so commonplace for everybody, if you don’t bring something else to the table, all the big agencies have competent photographers producing really good action shots. I have to go to an event and produce something that AP, Reuters, Getty etc are not producing. I have to find something different, I try to make sure all my pictures have a great sense of place, you can tell where they are from just by looking at them, or you can tell something about the mood of the event, like that bobsleigh shot. If the weather is really bad I try and show it’s bad along with it being an action shot.
On the one hand, you build into the image a lot of visual information for the newspaper or magazine reader. But what’s also interesting is that I’m often looking at your images and feeling visually dislocated. Your images play with conventions and forms, they shuffle the deck of the sports photo?
Everyone can now shoot a reasonable action picture, the gear is so advanced so you have to put something else into it. Just to shoot someone flying through the air is not difficult – it’s easy. Yes you can do this very well, the better photographers use light very well, some photographers have slightly better reactions than most, but the modern-day camera with 12 frames a second, these incredibly good autofocus lenses, it’s not difficult to shoot a good action picture. So to stand out from the crowd, you have to do something slightly different. Now that means you must have a style or a look to your photography.
Sports photography is overcrowded, there are too many people going to the events. There are due to be 400+ photographers at the Winter Olympics, at the summer games there are something like 1,400 – that’s far too overcrowded a marketplace to earn a living in, so you must stand out from that crowd if you are to have a chance of long-term success. I try to photograph as graphically as I can, I like clean patches of colour, I try to make sue they have a good sense of place so you have a feeling for the event from looking at the action picture in some cases. You can’t always do that, there are some great pictures that have no sense of place.
While you are shooting, you try to give the picture something that will make it stand out, otherwise why would they use you? Why would they use a freelance? The service from the agencies is out of this world at the moment as far as basic action pictures are concerned.
Photographer Adrian Myers who shoots a lot of winter sports, mentioned to me your skill at identifying where to get the shot?
That’s experience obviously, the more stuff you go to, the more you understand the sport you are photographing – you know where to go. A lot of photographers go to an event thinking, “I have to come back with 20 good pictures.” People employ me if they want one or two good pictures.
With regard to positioning I’m thinking of the shot from above with all these skiers, a swarm of sticks and skis and protective gear…
It’s a helicopter shot of the Engadin Skimarathon. That was shot by helicopter hundreds of times by lots of different photographers. I went out with the pilot and spoke to the person who did the course and asked, “where’s the biggest traffic jam?” He said it’s the first bend after they do this massive long-straight, after they go across this frozen lake, then they go up a hill and it’s round the first bend. He said it will be just like a traffic jam going into a car park – and it was! And we got a picture, everyone does the massed start normally, thousands of people coming at you, but we went to the first bend and shot exactly above.
I want to ask you about a quite different ski shot. The Engadin photo is clear and sharp, in contrast with a dramatic, spectral chiarascuro shot of a skier leaving a trail of ‘smoke’?
That picture is of the giant slalom in Turin from the winter Olympics there. As the sun is coming up over the hill behind the skier, it just caught the plume that the skier was just throwing up, and didn’t catch the skier, the skier is completely backlit, you can see the shadow in front of him. It’s underexposed to create a silhouette but the plume of smoke is what you see, because the smoke is lit and the hill is not, it’s still in shadow.
That was a decision in the moment?
That was a decision in the morning. I saw what happened the day before, saw it happen from a distance and thought at that time in the morning that’s going to happen. The next race was the Giant Slalom so I went back and waited for it. And if it didn’t work that would have been the waste of a whole day. That is a ‘whole-day’ decision to do that picture.
It was shot in colour but looks black and white because of the way you shot?
There’s a little bit of blue in the snow. It was shot in the hill next to the car park, on a huge lens, I think it was 800 ml.
What are the key differences for you between shooting winter sports and summer sports?
You have the weather to deal with. There’s the floodlit skiing picture on the website where its foggy. That day it was about minus 15. At the winter games you have to be prepared to work in incredibly cold weather – it’s so cold you have to have some sort of glove otherwise your finger will stick to the metal of the camera. And equally in Sochi for instance, so many of the events are going to be floodlit at night. The ski jumping is floodlit, the biathalon is floodlit, the freestyle skiing is floodlit, the snowboarding is floodlit, at night it has the potential to be incredibly wicked weather. That picture you liked, the bobsleigh, that was in pretty severe conditions. You must have a method of keeping your lenses clear, you must make sure they don’t stop when they get wet, so you have to have covers for cameras, and covers for you! If you wear glasses like I do, you got to have contact lenses or ski goggles that enable you to continue to shoot if the weather gets brutal.
Normally in a summer games you are sitting out in the sun taking nice pictures in your shorts. In a winter games you have to be fully prepared for the outdoors. It’s not just the normal ski outfit you wear when you go to Val d’Isere on holiday. You are going to stand for hours and hours and hours. It’s a different sort of gear. When you are skiing socially, the gear you wear is for active skiing and not just standing still. When you go to that same mountain and stand on the side for four hours, it’s a completely different thing. It’s pretty serious kit you need to protect you and your camera. With so much of the stuff going to be at night in Sochi, it’s going to be even colder, raining, damp or sleeting, and you have to be prepared for absolutely anything.
The plus side, for me…the summer Olympics is normally big news, you gotta be chasing the superstar. At the winter games its far more often a pictorial shoot, a shoot where you can look for a good picture, sports are all a bit wacky, biathlon is a fantastic thing ski jump, bobsleigh, the freestyle skiing, snowboard, half-pipe, it’s far more pictorial, more graphic than the summer games, the kinds of pictures I like. More ability to find something different. It’s difficult finding a different picture of Usain Bolt for instance.
When in charge of photography at Wimbledon, what were the key responsibilities and what lessons did you take from the experience into your own photography?
The interesting thing about Wimbledon that I enjoy most, because we have a team of photographers who do all the pictures for the club, it takes me back a bit to my early days of working at an agency. I enjoy working on a team that way, I don’t do it that often, there’s only three or four events a year I do like that, and Wimbledon is the largest I do by far. I enjoy the camaraderie of working with other photographers. So many photographers, including myself, spend our lives working on our own and you improve your photography much more, your pictures get much more interesting if you share and work with other photographers. If you’ve had a bad day everyone will take the piss out of you, if you’ve had a good day everyone will pat you on the back. If you get the atmosphere right of the group you are working with, which drives you on, people will comment on your work, you will comment on other people’s work and that helps, providing you open up and work with the other photographers it can be a great help creatively. They will question things and suggest things you wouldn’t have thought of. That will only help your work if you can accept the criticism and comment that’s delivered with the best of intentions.
I’m a pretty stubborn character and sometimes I’ll be desperately trying to get a picture, working at it, working at it, working at it, and someone will come along and say you tosser, why don’t you try it this way? And I’ll go oh yeah. One thing that’s really important, many photographers get stuck up their own arse, they get egotistically wound up that they can’t see there is anyway to do it than the way they do it. If you are good creative photographer you will keep looking at ways to re-invent yourself, because there is nothing worse than a stale photographer who doesn’t try something new.
Finally, I want to ask you about my new screensaver, the golf-kangaroo surrealist image, which by the way, when a friend saw it he thought it had to be photoshopped!
Nothing on my portfolio is photoshopped! I’m an editorial photographer so everything has be as its done. Basically I was on a story doing the Australian Open in Melbourne, and there was a story in the local paper about the drought, and how in a town called Scarborough down the coast was attracting kangaroos onto the golf course because it was the only place they had water. This particular year there was a big, big drought and a lot of bush fires, and the kangaroos discovered they could go onto the golf course and get water. The players got so fed up with it, and so used to it, they just ignored them. I went down the course and saw the local pro and he said ‘you can go out now, there is a club competition going on, you can shoot some pictures’. I could not believe my eyes. At about five o clock at night, the ‘roos were jumping over this 5 foot fence, eating the grass trying to find water, and there were hundreds of them, grazing like a flock of sheep. They were all jumping left to right, so the golfers on the other side of the hole shouted at them so the guy playing the hole could take his shot. They don’t come onto the course until about 5. So don’t play a round of golf at twilight!
See more of Bob Martin’s work here