A picture of ourselves as a nation

03/08/2014  -  10.59

Su Fahy, Divisional Leader in Fine Art and Photography

“Photography is nothing – it's life that interests me.”

This quote from Henri Cartier Bresson was recently posted by Magnum Photographic Agency as their quote of the day.

This notion reflects my interest in the event, the moment, the participation that holds the key - with photography reflecting these dearly held moments for reflection ‘after the event’. The role of the spectator can also be reflective of the moment when human presence through endeavour confounds even those without an interest in sport, providing the figure and ground for the photographer.

Art Director Danny Boyle stated that the opening ceremony of the Olympics was an attempt to capture a picture of ourselves as a nation, ‘where we have come from and where we want to be’. Spectators, photographers and film-makers have viewed this stageset ‘through a lens’ and documented where we want to be in this green and pleasant land.

These Olympic snapshots - almost postcards - from the Olympic Stadium will capture athletes wearing numbers and the cloaks of their national identity; their nation’s flags.

Early shots of the Olympics in the sixties shot in black and white were centred on the event, the performance of individuals against their backdrop. These individuals were christened often through their success with names like ‘the Mighty Atom’*, or ‘the God of the Berlin Games’, as Jesse Owens was dubbed in 1936, documented by Leni Riefenstahl in her controversial film Olympia (1938), as a supremely photogenic physical athlete. The names endure long after the event and the context of their success is always a reminder of the Olympic Arena and their images a document of each era.

We have fewer concerns now about the politics of engagement than were expressed in the thirties but still the images will be those of supremely fit individuals performing to the highest expectations of both their nation and spectators.

The headline ‘Queens of the floorshow’, a strapline to an article in a broadsheet newspaper referencing the 2012 Olympics, offers some echoes of this understanding of captioning the athletes. This group of young women are to perform in the artistic gymnastics, and the images of their grace, physical poise and ultimately of their participation in the ‘Amanar Vault’, will put them into images that will be iconic reflecting their physical supremacy as this vault is seen as one of the most difficult to perform to perfection.

A striking image to set the scene is, ‘American dreaming’, an image by Ronald Martinez taken for Getty Images and used in The Guardian on July 28, featuring Jordyn Weiber, a 17-year-old who is already a world champion caught in a reflective pose against the American Flag. Jordyn is in clear focus wearing her number, with the national flag, the stars and stripes softly displayed as her depth of field, her ground an unsharp backdrop.

This juxtaposition of the sharp and the unsharp are significant as that signature pause before the Games begin and all is revealed to spectators about the winners and losers in these tactical displays of human endeavour.


Su Fahy

*Sydney Wooderson from England was the original "Mighty Atom" whose peak career was in the 1930s and 1940s in the middle distances. He was 5 feet 6 inches and weighed less than 126 lbs (57 kg).