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|| News Item: Posted 2012-08-27

2012 Summer Olympics - David Burnett
“The collection of the best athletes in one place provides an opportunity for us to try and do our best – the Photographer’s Olympics, too, it seems.”

By David Burnett

Photo by Nhat V. Meyer / Mercury News

Photo by Nhat V. Meyer / Mercury News

Sports Illustrated's Heinz Kluetmeier shoots a portrait of David Burnett during a short break from the action at the 2012 Summer Olympics.
I have just returned from my 8th Summer Games. It’s not much, perhaps, when you compare it to Giuliano Belavacqua, who was attending his 23rd Olympics and who says he should get credit for 30+. He’s done 11 Summer, 12 Winters, and feels each Winter Games is worth 2 Summers.

I kind of agree with the “Winter” interpretation.

Photography is tough enough without being cold. But there is something addictive about the Olympics that we photographers share with the rest of the world. The collection of the best athletes in one place provides an opportunity for us to try and do our best – the Photographer’s Olympics, too, it seems. The way we cover the games continues to morph.

When I started in 1984, we shot film (E-6), sent it to the Official Fuji lab in downtown LA, and got it back a few hours later. (This year for the first time there was NO wet lab at all.) You then edited the slides and THAT was your coverage. That waiting period between shooting and editing still provided a minor sense of wonder, and of questioning whether or not you GOT the shot. No screens on the backs of cameras yet to inform of the good or bad news, the way we operate now. In fact the wonderment that accompanied your shooting was in many ways the most memorable part of the experience.

In those hours between exposing film, and getting your little green box back, you reconsidered time after time whether or not you’d blown it or saved the day. You wondered what else you could have done to be a little better. To beat the guy standing next to you. The ability to be looking at the screen of the 100 meter start, before they actually finish the race (and there is a sprint amongst the photographers – to see who can flip their cameras from shooting to viewing mode the quickest – as they try and confirm for better or worse what they have just shot) is, I would have to say, a horrible thing.

There is no meditating, no wondering, no imagining, no question marks. The crowds are still cheering as you flick thru the screen to see what made it to your sensor. I kind of marvel at it, and at the same time wonder if we wouldn’t be better off as image makers if there were some little built in time, something to leaven the rush of the need to know. But if you would do that, maybe you’d want to go all the way and put a big piece of gaffers tape over the screen and leave it there. I think your pictures from the first few days would really suck. Like a duck out of water, you would be consumed with what you didn’t get and how you could make it better. But very quickly, I’ll bet, the pictures would start to come. As confidence would build about exposures, angles, what lens to use, I do think the pictures would start to come back. All the skills from five generations of photography that have dissipated the last ten years would start to return. A sense of craft, beyond merely being confident you could “fix it in post” would enrich the level of shooting.

I am not saying that there is no good to be had from the new technologies. Far from it. The new cameras let us make pictures that were never even imaginable a dozen years ago. But in all of that, in the rush to bestow the crown of technical achievement upon the head of digital photography, I think we risk losing a piece of the soul of all our work. And whatever each of us can do as individuals to get beyond the norm, the expected, the predictable, and the obvious that is what photography in the new century demands of us.

This year, with so many photographers filing from their shooting positions, the “life” in the Photo Work Room was vastly diminished. Formerly, there would be anywhere from 200 to 400 photographers, all spread out in a giant work area, each using either wired or Wi-Fi, sending their edited images back to base. There was a wonderful informal tradition that when you went to the restroom, or out for a coffee, you ‘d leave the best thing you’d shot all day sitting big and bold on your laptop screen, so that those around you would see your best, and presumably get psyched out by the fact that they would never be able to match your best work.

Now, most of that kind of editing takes place in the local venues, or even in, say, the moat around the athletics track. Cards are uploaded right after they are shot. Images are molded quickly, and sent out just as snappily. To a sometime film guy like myself, you think you’re living in a different century.

Speed of delivery, like speed on the track, becomes the standard. Expectations for delivery are high. And for someone like myself who keeps thinking that the current Olympics are the “last one,” there is always the sense that maybe the last one isn’t QUITE the last one. There will always be one more to do. Rio, I guess: here we come.

David Burnett is the founder of Contact Press Images. You can see samples of his work and links to his other Internet sites at his Sports Shooter member page:

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