When you've covered seven Summer Olympic Games, shooting sports may start to feel trite. David Burnett, spotted with a Graflex Speed Graphic camera at this year's games, says "I don’t do a lot of sports coverage in between the Olympics. For me, it’s more than a sports event. I’m always trying to make some bigger contextual view of it." See the evolution of his photos here.
Among the throngs of digital SLRs at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, a lone analogue camera stood out. It was a medium format Graflex Speed Graphic which belonged to American photojournalist David Burnett. Having shot the Summer World Games since 1984, he shares the stories behind some of his iconic Olympic photographs in this interview with The New York Times.
Q. You had an auspicious debut in your first Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984. Your photo of Mary Decker (third photo above) is one of the most iconic sports images. Tell me about it.
A. I don’t think there’s going to be many more. Not that there won’t be good pictures taken. But we are in an age of visual overload. I don’t think there’s going to be another Olympic picture that is going to get that kind of run. It’s one of those things that I just got lucky, and I didn’t screw up. It’s about being lucky and not screwing up, and trying to be ready for some moment if you happen to be the right place.
Q. "David Burnett. He didn’t screw up.”
A. I’ll take that.
Q. I would take that also. So you shoot more Olympics waiting for your magic moment to happen in front of you again. Then, you started looking at this differently, right?
A. I don’t do a lot of sports coverage in between the Olympics. For me, it’s more than a sports event. I’m always trying to make some bigger contextual view of it. Also the way I shoot and how I shoot have evolved. By 1996 and 2000, I was shooting a lot of medium format, and trying to get a picture when you have only one chance to push the button. By 2004, I was shooting with the speed graphic. That was really just fun, a lot of misses, mostly misses. Every now and then, everything would work right and you would guess where someone would be.
Q. But why did you do that? It’s like deciding to shoot the Olympics with two arms tied behind your back. What was your point?
A. Just trying to do something that would make my pictures a bit more special for me.
Q. So this was partly for your entertainment, partly hoping to do something different?
A. The thing is, I’ve always liked new kinds of hardware because they give me another way to look at something. They help me see something in a little different way. I’m still having fun with the speed graphic. I look back at the pictures from the ’20s and ’30s and wonder how they got any pictures at all with the super-slow film and lenses. And they did a great job. I want to come up with something as timeless and classic. I feel like there’s just a million things to still try. I still love shooting with a Holga and with the 4×5. The hardest thing, no matter the gear, is to force yourself to see things in a slightly different way. And don’t go to the finish line, go to the third turn where nothing ever happens and try to make a picture there.
Q. What cameras will you bring to London?
A. I’m not sure, but I’ll bring the 4×5. One of the difficulties of a 4×5 is always remembering to do everything in the right order. You’ve got to focus, close the shutter, cock the shutter, put the film in, pull the dark slide and hope that you haven’t actually shot that film before. Then put the dark slide back in, you flip it so the black edge is out that says, “I’ve been shot, don’t shoot me again.”
Q. There’s no room for a mistake with a 4×5. Maybe it should be an Olympic sport: photographing moving events with a 4×5.
A. I always remind people that every four years it’s the photographers’ Olympics, too. You have the best photographers in the world, all in one place, shooting the same thing.
Such great insight from one of the most respected analogue photographers in the world, talking about participating in one of the world’s biggest unifying events! You might also like:
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