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Sports Photography: an Art in its Own Right

Sports Photography: an Art in its Own Right

On October 9, the sports daily L’Equipe is putting up a century’s worth of photos for auction at the Parisian auction house Drouot. Representing every athletic discipline, some of these images have become icons. The newspaper’s photo editor shares the epic story of sports photography.
Novak Djokovic, Australian Open – 2018 © Nicolas Luttiau/L’Équipe

Her right hand firmly holding the racket in the air, her left arm extended in perfect balance, her head profiled against the bleachers, her gaze determined: as if in a choreographed dance, captured in crisp black and white, Suzanne Lenglen had just hit the ball under the Cannes sun. It was February 16, 1926. Spectators crowded around the Carlton Hotel tennis court to witness what the press would later call “the match of the century”—a contest between the 26-year-old Frenchwoman and her lifelong rival, the 20-year-old American Helen Wills. The French flag would fly high that day, culminating the only match ever between these two champions. A match, a photo, an icon: history remembers great champions through a snapshot, a portrait, a gesture. For over seventy years, the newspaper L’Équipe has been anthologizing such moments. Its archive is a photographic treasure trove, of which 201 photos and contact sheets will be auctioned next Friday, October 9, 2020. 

Suzanne Lenglen, the “match of the century” © Collections L’Équipe February 16 1926

A treasure trove of 12 million images

The photo editor-in-chief, François Gille, spent sleepless nights handpicking the photos, combing through thousands of images in the archive. Originally scheduled for last July, the auction would have had soccer and the Olympic Games as its main themes. But the pandemic laid waste to all plans. “We had to start again from scratch. It was heartbreaking,” Gille admitted. The games were postponed too. This October, a large portion of the lots are still dedicated to soccer, the newspaper’s trademark column. But to catch up with the news, L’Équipe is unveiling its most beautiful pictures of the Tour de France and of the clay courts at Roland-Garros. But nor are rugby, basketball, swimming, or track and field overlooked. In fact, it would take an entire museum to display all of the 12.5 million images spanning more than a century and preserved by this daily sports newspaper founded in 1946.

Synchronized swimming, French team training camp – 2014 © Franck Seguin / L’Équipe July 13, 2014

The idea for this auction took shape when the paper was packing for a move in October 2018. A few months before relocating, the question of the photo collection came up: “That’s when we were told that the bulk of the collection could not be moved,” recalls François Gille. Now it was a race against time: nearly 5 million images were digitized in fifteen months—a great feat, since the newspaper had digitized only 5,000 images since 2000. These included 300,000 glass plates dating back to 1914. The entire photographic archive is now stored in a secret location. And the treasure trove is rather well guarded since Michel Platini’s free kicks, Björn Borg’s backhand, and Michael Jordan’s hoops are nestled next to Paris Opera costumes, housed in the same location.

Ayrton Senna, Monaco Grand Prix practice – 1989 © Patrick Boutroux / L’Équipe May 6, 1989 

From film to digital: a revolution in sports photography

To find the rarest gems, François Gille traveled through time, retracing the history of photography. Before heading the photo department, he had worked in the archives. This was twenty-eight years ago. “When I started out, there were four of us huddled around a light table with a magnifying glass, captioning slides by hand,” Gille recalls. These were different times. The digital format didn’t take over until the 2000s. It was during the 1996 Champions League Final between Ajax of Amsterdam and Turin-based Juventus that the newspaper’s photographers put their first digital cameras to the test. They did so again the following year at the Tour de France. At that time, the film industry still had a bright future: “The yellow jerseys weren’t yellow at all!,” laughs François Gille, recalling the shortcomings of the first digital sensors. L’Équipe made the switchover only in 1998, in response to the demands of the FIFA World Cup.

Luis Ocaña, Eddy Merckx, Raymond Poulidor – Tour de France 1972 © L’Équipe July 13 1972

Starting in 2000, with the Sydney Olympics, “everything went digital. It revolutionized the profession. We could run a photo of a penalty kick the next day, whereas before it was not possible at all,” the editor-in-chief recalls. In the age of film, a lab assistant would have accompanied the photographer to each game: “He would set up a small studio near the locker rooms and develop 2 to 3 rolls. He then wired 5–6 photos at most. In fact, it was common practice for the front page to feature a photo from the first half of the game.” Then the other rolls would arrive at the editorial office by train, plane, or delivered by hand; sometimes we would pass the photos to a random passenger,” the former archivist recalls in wonder. Until 2005, the magazine had still covered stories in analog. “The purists took their time converting to digital,” says François Gille. Today, at a soccer match, a photographer might take close to a thousand photos. When a French team is playing at the Stade de France, four photographers are on deck: “We get 1000 photos in an hour and a half!”

Serena Williams, Australian Open – 2017 © Richard Martin / L’Équipe January 23, 2017

“The event is forgotten, but the artistic beauty remains”

So how do you choose? Using your instinct, says François Gille: “One hesitates over some photos, and with others there is no doubt, despite the overwhelming quantities of images pouring in.” The selection of 201 photos from the auction also relied on gut feeling. “Every morning, when I scrolled through the pictures over my coffee, I would find a nugget,” noted Gille. Take this 1950 photo: crouching in a muddy field in Le Havre, the French footballer Jean Palluch places a leather soccer ball in front of a little kid’s foot to teach him how to kick. The scene is touching, just that. “The event is forgotten, but the artistic beauty remains,” observes François Gille. “A legendary photo, in my mind, is one that pulls everything together: a great moment, full of emotion, and perfectly composed. And then there is the state of grace.” And that was, for example, Usain Bolt running his 100m race, which “just takes your breath away,” or the great Serena Williams against the light in sweltering Melbourne, her face in the shadow and only a bead of sweat at the tip of her chin, captured by Richard Martin, a great sports photographer, especially of swimming, who died last July.“Water adds an extra something to the effort that can be photographed, it’s very aesthetic. I work for a newspaper so I am obliged to make news, but what interests me also is to make photos that will last,” Martin said.

Jean Palluch, Le Havre – 1950 © Collections L’Équipe 1950

Often shunned by galleries, sports photography has its place in photographic art. Eternal, universal, it often possesses rare emotional power. François Gille’s most beautiful discovery is a testament to this. One afternoon in February 1948, the French national team faced Wales on their home turf in Swansea. The photo editor recounts: “The referee couldn’t get the match started; the stadium was bursting in the seams. The players kept their hands in their pockets because it was extremely cold. The atmosphere in the photo is insane, the light is sublime, very suggestive. I love it because every time I look at it, I discover some new detail. It was the first time that the French rugby team beat Wales at home. We’re looking at a legendary photo because it goes beyond sports.” Whether it’s a game of rugby, or soccer, or a boxing match makes no difference: sport is practiced to be magnified in the image. The photographer captures moments of extreme joy, suffering, tears, tragedy. Including the state of grace.

Wales-France, 5 Nations Tournament – 1948 © Collections L’Équipe / L’Équipe February 21, 1948
Pele – World Cup 1958 © L’Équipe June 6, 1958
Michael Jordan, Open McDonald’s in Paris-Bercy – 1997 © Bruno Fablet/L’Équipe October 17, 1997
Cover: Diego Maradona, Belgium-Argentina – World Cup 1982 © L’Équipe June 13, 1982

By Michaël Naulin

Michaël Naulin is a journalist. Having worked in regional and national newspapers, he is above all passionate about photography and more particularly reporting.

The auction will take place on Friday, October 9, online and on location:
Drouot-Richelieu, Room 9
9, rue Drouot
75009 Paris

See the auctioned photos online.

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