Review of ‘Spirit of the Games’

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Welty stated that ‘a good snapshot keeps a moment from running away’.[1] This selection of photographs does more than this; it encapsulates an atmosphere. During the summer of 2012, photography brought the sounds, smells and emotions of a remarkable event to the whole world. This event was a break from reality; Barack Obama tweeted about it, Queen Elizabeth participated in the Opening Ceremony and every country in the world competed.[2] On a lower level, recent statistics show the success of the regeneration of East London, whilst 81% of people view the disabled more positively after the Paralympic Games and nearly two million more people now play sport.[3] The Olympics could be criticised for being a forcibly regimented exclusion from reality; it now merely fulfils expectations. Yet people love it. The increasing speed of dissemination, and the development of multifarious networks of online sharing ensured that news spread instantaneously. Through this, the Olympics grew into an incredible force; over 150 million tweets were sent during the sixteen day event.[4] The ability of photography to convey an atmosphere of emotion and excitement engaged and enthralled the public. This collection, ‘Spirit of the Games’, highlights how photography can capture the combined spirit of humanity in exceptional moments, through the element of surprise, or because of technological possibility.[5]  Photography now enables us to feel as if we were a spectator at the event ourselves.

 

The greatest feature of the atmosphere, permeating through this collection, is nationalism. The colours of the Union Jack on clothing, flags and the smoke from the Red Arrows are elements of every picture. ‘Scream’ is particularly appealing; the fisheye effect creates a sense of madness and passion, giving the impression of great love of their country.[6] These images resonate because nationalistic pride is somewhat fraudulent; there is a constant juxtaposition of discontent with a nation, yet a willingness to support and be proud of representatives. Orwell wrote in 1945 that nationalism ‘is inseparable from the desire for power’ and this is perhaps why we see such patriotism.[7] A nation victorious is a display of power in the most public of arenas. When comparing to every day society, as depicted in Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’, the Olympics can be seen as a state of exception.[8] Frank’s most famous image, The Trolley, suggests the American ‘symbols of patriotism’ to be ‘transparent’.[9] The image is cropped to focus on the frames of the windows in which the subjects lean out; each person is next to each other yet in a completely different frame, appearing to question their existence together. Atmosphere is used in this photo to create antagonism towards the nation state. The combination of the black and white image and exasperated subjects nullifies and dulls the photograph; it is a social comment about the alienation of American people. This is made even more ironic by opening each chapter with a picture of an American flag.[10] ‘Spirit of the Games’ presents the Olympics as a concept to be cherished; in this state of exception, real affection is displayed towards the nation state. Capturing these moments highlight that even on the bleakest of days, there was, and could be once more, a state where the spirit of patriotism is absolute.

 

To appreciate ‘spirit’ is to capture humanity at its most vulnerable; unaware of the camera. Barthes’ believed that to capture a poignant moment on film, the ‘essential gesture of the operator is to surprise something’.[11] The photographs in the collection show pure emotion without the mask applied with the awareness of being captured. Both ‘Golden Girls’ and ‘EMA_7592’ do not simply show elation, but the culmination of a journey.[12] In the latter, the focus of the camera is devoutly on the young women overcome by tears; this is not just her victory, but also the victory of the photographer. It is a slightly sinister to imagine and implies an ‘aggression implicit in every use of the camera’. Yet there is still a great connection with the spectator; we understand her tears of joy. Vachon’s famous ‘Negro Boy cannot connect with the audience in the same way as ‘EMA_7592’.[13] The subject dominates the frame in both, but ‘Negro Boy’ lacks context or emotion; it is intriguing, but there is no punctum.[14] Perhaps Larry Burrows shares more in common with the ‘Spirit of the Games’ collection despite the antithetical subject matter. The emotion of the boy being faced with a bayonet resonates with the viewer.[15] His expression is rooted on the guard; what Burrow’s has captured is pure emotion at a time of complete strife. For Barthes, punctum occurs when the event itself ‘pricks’ the photographer; it is an ‘accident’.[16] It is difficult to see how much of an ‘accident’ it is considering the ‘stadium’ in which the photographers were based. However the pureness of emotion conveyed captivates the spectator; the ‘Spirit of the Games’ collection encapsulates jubilation, just as Burrow’s captured true despair. For disparate reasons, this is what makes these images so compelling.

 

The magnificent array of colour creates a realism enabling the spectator to connect with the emotions conveyed. Swarovski argued that colour photography reduced black and white pictures to being viewed as ‘static’ and ‘bland’.[17] Perhaps this is a little asperous, possibly owing to the fact he was promoting a colour exhibition; however colour does enumerate a different layer of meaning to images. The wonderful composition of ‘IMG_3328’ contrasts the dark night colours with the five Olympic rings and fireworks; it is suggesting that the summer has conquered the normally bleak society.[18] Colour thus encapsulates the state of exception. Cartier-Bresson expressed concern regarding the potential of colour to ‘prejudice the achievement of life and movement’.[19] Perhaps he has a point; colour could be seen to manipulate the Olympics, bringing them into the realms of fantasy. The image of Mo Farah elevates him to demi-God status, with the huge yellow light overlooking the athlete.[20] The only image in black and white is of a cinema; perhaps this subliminally criticises those not embracing the Olympic spirit.[21] However it is colour which drives these photographs in becoming representative of the idealist nation state captured during the summer of 2012. This is highlighted by the comparison of ‘Wiggomania on Strawberry Hill’ and Moriyama’s Cyclist.[22] The former is photographed from spectator level; the colours and camera angle engage the viewer in experiencing every element of the atmosphere, from the hot sunny day, to sounds of the crowd. With Moriyama, the viewer is situated behind the cyclist, but there is no connection; the blurriness and lack of colour make this dour street scene rather depressing. Colour in ‘The Spirit of the Games’ encapsulates a once in a lifetime event; the happiness, support and togetherness of people from all around the world. This captures reality as it once was, not as it always is, and this is what makes the images so special.

 

What resonates throughout this selection of pictures is the idea that they are an idealistic form of memory of this desirable state of exception. They make the viewer smile (‘Smile’), reminisce (‘RPS Olympics 7’) or feel proud of being British (‘Red Arrows’).[23] The winner of this competition was the picture of Mo Farah.[24] Perhaps this won because the image acts as a source of memorialisation of the games, akin to Barthes noting how photography ‘gave me a sentiment as certain as remembrance’.[25] Returning to Orwell’s concept of seeking power as a nation, the image symbolises Britain being triumphant on the world stage. The Olympics were about more than the athletes though; the mantra of the games was to ‘inspire a nation’. These photographs certainly conform to this. A cynic could argue that the Olympics were a politically led brainwashing of Britain; these photographs show that the public completely bought into what the government aimed to portray. However two images in particular capture ‘spirit’; this is something which is natural, not forged. ‘Whitechapel Race’ is a charming photo, focussing on some boys using traffic control devices as starting blocks, inspired by the Olympics. [26] It is what Sontag would call ‘an experience encapsulated’.[27] Photography enables the spectator to enjoy and witness insignificant, but truly heartening moments. At the other end of the spectrum, ‘Waiting for the torch 4’ is simple in composition, with two elderly women holding a British flag and hat.[28] There are elements of Walker Evans, who captured the public on the subway. The grainy black and white emotionless images aid Evans in his aim of creating ‘a semi-conscious reaction against right thinking and optimism’.[29] The two women used by West are similar to Evans’ subjects, however in this state of exception they exude the spirit of positivity the Olympics created. They are a part of the Olympics; Britain became a collective. Photography ensures that this moment of inclusion and enjoyment, experienced by all, will always be part of our lives.

 

Ansel Adams stated that ‘A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense and is thereby a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.’[30] This collection of inspirational and momentous images encapsulates this; every image is uplifting; many are deeply patriotic; all parts of society are included. A viewer of these photographs can feel the pleasure of the person who has taken the pictures. This is evident through the great use of positive colours to present a joyous time. The collection contrasts street photographs epitomising the atmosphere of the games with images of the competitors, telling a story of what the Olympics stands for. It is about every person feeling a sense of belonging and feeling inspired. Comparisons to other photographers show that this was a time of exception. These photographs enable viewers to have a multisensory experience of what happened in the wonderful summer of 2012; one which will live with them for the rest of their lives.

 

 

 


[1] Good Reads, Eudora Welty Quotes, accessed at http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/72887-a-good-snapshot-keeps-a-moment-from-running-away, on 18/01/2014.

[2] Matt Rosenberg, Countries Participating in the 2012 Olympic Games in London, accessed at http://geography.about.com/od/politicalgeography/a/Countries-Participating-In-The-2012-Olympic-Games-In-London.htm, on 22/01/2014.

[3] HM Government & Mayor of London, Inspired by 2012: The legacy from the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games (London, 2013), p.14.

[4] George Szalai, Olympics 2012: Twitter Users Sent More Than 150 million Summer Games Tweets, accessed at http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/olympics-2012-twitter-usain-bolt-record-michael-phelps-401973 on 22/01/2014.

[5] The Royal Photographic Society, Celebrate a Summer of Sport, accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/about/, on 17/01/2014.

[6] Hendra Eka, Scream (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014.

[7] George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism (1945), accessed at http://www.resort.com/~prime8/Orwell/nationalism.html on 22/01/2014.

[8] Robert Frank, The Americans (Gottingen, 1988).

[9] Robert Frank, ‘Trolley: New Orleans’ (1955) in Sarah Greenough, Philip Brookman, Martin Gasser, John Hanhardt and WS Di Piero, Robert Frank: Moving On (New York, 1994), p.196.

[10] Robert Frank, Parade – Hoboken, New Jersey (1955) in Moving On, P. 175.

[11] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (London, 2000), p.32.

[12] Stuart Robinson, Golden Girls (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014; Emanuele Broli, EMA_7952 (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014.

[13] John Vachon, Negro Boy (1942), accessed at http://www.flickr.com/photos/trialsanderrors/3004536050/ on 16/01/2014.

[14] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (London, 2000), p.51.

[15] Larry Burrows, Vietnam (London, 2002), p.43.

[16] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (London, 2000), p.27.

[17] John Swarovski, William Eggleston’s Guide (1976), accessed at http://www.moma.org/docs/press_archives/5374/releases/MOMA_1976_0034_26.pdf?2010 on 21/01/2014.

[18] Chaiyasith Junjuerdee, IMG_3328 (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014.

[19] Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers (New York, 2004), p. 36.

[20] Tim Clayton, A Humble Mo Farah, Great Britain, After Receiving his 5000m Gold Medal (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014.

[21] Winnie Ho, For the Less Sporting (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014.

[22] Phillip Parish, Wiggomania on Strawberry Hill (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014;

Daido Moriyama, Cyclist, accessed at http://lmw-daidomoriyama.blogspot.co.uk/ on 22/01/2014.

[23] Shirley Hollis, Smile (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014; Mark Pain, RPS Olympics 7 (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014; Jereon Pels, Red Arrows (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014.

[24] Tim Clayton, A Humble Mo Farah, Great Britain, After Receiving his 5000m Gold Medal (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014.

[25] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (London, 2000), p. 70.

[26] Richard Crappsley, Whitechapel Race (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014.

[27] Susan Sontag, On Photography (London, 1979), p.2.

[28] Tim West, Waiting for the torch 4 (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014.

[29] James R. Mellor, Walker Evans (New York, 1999), p. 76.

[30] Ansel Adams in Vicki Goldberg ed., Photography in Print (New Mexico, 1988), p.249.

 

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Bibliography

Photographs

Broli, Emanuele, EMA_7952 (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014.

Burrows, Larry, Vietnam (London, 2002)

Clayton, Tim, A Humble Mo Farah, Great Britain, After Receiving his 5000m Gold Medal (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014.

Crappsley, Richard, Whitechapel Race (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014.

Eka, Hendra, Scream (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014.

Ho, Winnie, For the Less Sporting (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014

Hollis, Shirley, Smile (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014

Junjuerdee, Chaiyasith, IMG_3328 (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014.

Moriyama, Daido, Cyclist, accessed at http://lmw-daidomoriyama.blogspot.co.uk/ on 22/01/2014.

Pain, Mark, RPS Olympics 7 (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014

Parish, Phillip, Wiggomania on Strawberry Hill (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014;

Pels, Jereon, Red Arrows (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014.

Robinson, Stuart, Golden Girls (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014

Vachon, John, Negro Boy (1942), accessed at http://www.flickr.com/photos/trialsanderrors/3004536050/ on 16/01/2014.

West, Tim, Waiting for the torch 4 (2012), accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/competition/finalist/4495/?competition=Spirit Of The Games on 15/01/2014.

Secondary Sources

Written:

Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida (London, 2000).

Cartier-Bresson, Henri, The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers (New York, 2004).

Frank, Robert, The Americans (Gottingen, 1988).

Goldberg, Vicki, Photography in Print (New Mexico, 1988).

Greenough, Sarah, Philip Brookman, Martin Gasser, John Hanhardt and WS Di Piero, Robert Frank: Moving On (New York, 1994).

HM Government & Mayor of London, Inspired by 2012: The legacy from the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games (London, 2013).

Mellor, James R., Walker Evans (New York, 1999).

Sontag, Susan, On Photography (London, 1979). 

Websites:

Good Reads, Eudora Welty Quotes, accessed at http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/72887-a-good-snapshot-keeps-a-moment-from-running-away, on 18/01/2014.

Orwell, George, Notes on Nationalism (1945), accessed at http://www.resort.com/~prime8/Orwell/nationalism.html on 22/01/2014.

Rosenberg, Matt, Countries Participating in the 2012 Olympic Games in London, accessed at http://geography.about.com/od/politicalgeography/a/Countries-Participating-In-The-2012-Olympic-Games-In-London.htm, on 22/01/2014.

Swarovski, John, William Eggleston’s Guide (1976), accessed at http://www.moma.org/docs/press_archives/5374/releases/MOMA_1976_0034_26.pdf?2010 on 21/01/2014.

Szalai, Georg, Olympics 2012: Twitter Users Sent More Than 150 million Summer Games Tweets, accessed at http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/olympics-2012-twitter-usain-bolt-record-michael-phelps-401973, on 22/01/2014.

The Royal Photographic Society, Celebrate a Summer of Sport, accessed at http://www.imagecomp.org/about/, 17/01/2014

 

Word Count: 1649

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