There's a saying I hear a lot... "If you want to be a better photographer, study the work of great photographers". Turns out this is a minor obsession of mine. I spend way too much time looking at photography websites. Browsing books and magazines pondering what makes a photo great and what the photographer was thinking. But I've often wondered if it really matters. How do you incorporate all of that into what you are trying to express with the camera? How does it not become completely derivative?
This past weekend I photographed the first race of the 2011 USATF New England Mountain Running Circuit at Northfield Mountain, Massachusetts. On this course, I'd have only two chances to shoot the field... once on the way up the mountain and once on the way back down. Where you choose to shoot from is always a calculated risk, especially if you haven't taken photos on the course before. Once the race started, I quickly realized I was in the wrong place. The runners were still too close together coming out of the start making it difficult to isolate runners into clean compositions. Because of the tight pack, this round of shooting was over in literally a few minutes.
Trying to adjust to a better position, I did make the image below and while it isn't technically the best of the several hundred frames I shot that day, I liked it. To me, it showed movement and how the pack advances as one. The trees in the background were compelling and, along with the curve shape in the pack of runners, they gave the image depth.
Hand in hand with contemplating the work of other photographers, I also contemplate my own and something about this image made me particularly thoughtful. Why do I like it better than any other image I made during the first leg of the race? Why did I take it? Was it as simple as this was all I could capture in the mad scramble? I started the race shooting tighter. Why did I pull out to a wide angle and shoot the pack from the side?
Then I had a thought and went to the Internet to find an image I've admired many, many times by the legendary Paul Caponigro. Paul is the father of noted contemporary digital artist John Paul Caponigro. The elder Caponigro made this image called Running White Deer in 1967. He was in County Wicklow, Ireland on a private estate to photograph a rare herd of white deer. As they fled, he made one image and this was the result. Below Caponigro's image, I've posted a black and white version of my shot from the race.
Let me say clearly that I'm not directly comparing the fine art made by Caponigro to my race grab. But there are interesting similarities that I'm not sure are coincidental. Who would have thought fine art photography could influence sports shooting? Maybe this explains why I chose this shot when I needed a fall back plan to my poorly chosen shooting location. Maybe the pack of runners connected with some iconic component of Caponigro's image that I carry around in my head. Maybe not. But I'm going to keep my habit of tucking my kids in to bed and then passing the evening browsing websites of important photographers. It's more interesting than television and maybe something rubs off.