Lynda Nead on Violence and Sports Photography

Ali throws a right hook against Brian London

Ali throws a right hook against Brian London (1966)

Lynda Nead is a feminist art historian – The Female Nude (1992) and Myths of Sexuality (1988) are pathfinding works. Turns out Nead is a boxer, and has recently turned her attention to representations of boxing. Her 2001 essay “Stilling the Punch” offers an outstanding intervention regarding the ways that people tend think look at sports photography. One thing I really appreciate about this essay is the ease with which she parries the observation that sports is “just” war in the form of play. Yes, she says – but the things shared across representations of war and representations of sports are far, far more interesting than people tend to think. Two paragraphs from the opening pages of the essay:

War cannot be withstood and it is the stuff of pictures – it has within it something pictorial, but so has sport. I am fascinated by this offhand connection between the visual appeal of war and sport and not just in the obvious way that international sport may be seen as an enactment of patriotic interests and national conflicts. Is there not a deeper connection between the idealization and desecration of the body in warfare and in sport that makes this pairing intriguing and provocative? If we shift our attention from war photography to sports photography might we understand something different about violence, pain and representation and the havoc that violence wreaks on the human body?

Sports photography has been completely overlooked in the history of photography. It is unclear why this has been the case, but perhaps it is to do with its everyday nature and its association with the world of leisure; its place on the back pages rather than the front pages of news reporting. If sports photographs are the subjects of exhibitions, as, for example, in the exhibition of photographs of boxer Muhammad Ali in London in 2010, it is usually because of the identity of their subjects, in which the nature of the image changes from sports photograph to portrait. To concentrate discussions of violence and photography on images of war is to limit our understanding of the nature of the visual representation of violence and of how it enters into the language of other areas of social and cultural discourse. –  Lynda Nead, “Stilling the Punch: Boxing, Violence and the Photographic Image” in The Journal of Visual Culture 10: 305 (2011)

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