Translating the metaphysical world of sport into a singular image could seem like an impossible task, but it is one that Australian photographer Delly Carr has been doing for thirty years. Between his global assignments and work as a Nikon ambassador, the multi-award winning photographer got a chance to sit down and tap out a few answers to questions we had and muse on the nature of his profession.
This year, Carr will be one of the judges who survey the array of photographs submitted for the 2019 Nikon photo contest in the competition’s fiftieth year. Read on for his approach to sports photography and a hint at what he’ll be looking for from this year’s finalists.
BYO: You've photographed sports all over the world, how does your subject change from place to place, and has sport itself undergone changes during your thirty year career?
Carr: Travel has been the greatest perk of my job. 36 countries. Sometimes sports coupled with some places that offer eye-catching backgrounds and stimuli to an image, but most times I have to begrudgingly accept that I only have access to the sporting field or inside a stadium.
[Sports] is a genre of photography that requires a lot from a photographer, as the world of sport is defined and restricted by sponsors, sporting bodies, organisers, security, TV and the intellectual property of athletes. It is not easy. Yet it shouldn’t be either.
We need to shine and try to be creative in an environment constrained by touch lines, walls, stadiums, signage and concrete. Creativity comes from a corner of the brain, a vault that is always filled to the max, but there is a constant slow leak, and in each drip the chemistry creativity is different.
This chemistry is influenced by all my senses: sight, sound, smell and touch, and when the mix feels perfect within that sport environment and [the surrounding] circumstances, then that is what helps you to be creative. It is highly skilled. More than you can imagine.
BYO: Photography and sport almost seem to be in constant tension —the inherent movement of sport and the stillness of photography — how do you translate that into a single frame?
Carr: Sport photography is a genre that is observed by many viewers, and images can invoke feeling and reactions.
A true professional sports photographer understands light, timing, exposure, composition, and forethought.
An athlete forecasts the moments [that] they will anticipate, react to and live when the set day of competition arrives. A sports photographer must try to anticipate, react to, and live these same moments when they are presented to us.
Photographs are also part of a mental process, the result of an interaction between the photographs and the viewers. Images are products of what is perceived and thought, both consciously and unconsciously, but looped in a spiral of relationships which are continuous - a continuum. So time, in this loop, does not rely on the movement of a clock but is instead located in the physical space, thus resulting in the moment depicted in the photograph.
A photograph 'fixes the moment' of an event. In that moment, the photograph preserves what the eye might otherwise not capture. The idea that a photo can capture a moment in time happens to be a specific statement born out of, and sustained by, our conceptions of what is being represented.
BYO: You take great care to pay attention to the emotions inherent in sport, what techniques do you use to capture and present that?
Carr: My world is about moments - quick fleeting moments that are otherwise missed - but brought into existence by the physical photograph. The moments are many, the moments are quick and the moments all exist with different biologies to each other. That biology is determined by the vision and portrayal that the photographer judges as being part of its outer skin. The sports photographer puts a little of his own self into his grand vision, and ultimately the exhibition of that captured moment.
Images have a part of my DNA imbedded, consciously or unconsciously, into their physical rendition. I am not an athlete. I haven’t felt first-hand how and what the athlete feels when competing at such an elite level. The DNA that I place in my images is how and why I see things through my personality. And that personality, is humour, is darkness, is form, and will be shaped by how I feel that day, how fatigued I am, my hunger, my hours of sleep, my life experiences, my friends, my yearning to be at home and its comforts, or how my work has progressed through the ongoing hours of competition.
I witness and record a special time in these athlete’s lives. A time which impacts and shapes their present and future. Time that swings from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. Or time that swings from one end of the physical spectrum to the other.
And as soon as there is a spectator for the photograph, the photograph and moment exists.
BYO: Why has Nikon been the camera of choice for you?
Carr: When I walked away from my corporate job with my dream to be a sports photographer, it was time to get serious. In my mind, serious photographers only had Nikon.
I bought my first Nikon 35mm camera and sold my car to buy the correct sport lenses.
Nikon felt so right in my hand, the perfect glove-like fit, like an old friend.
In all my time since that day, Nikon continually push the highest boundaries for quality and technology. That’s what it does best, it slips in without complaint and becomes an integral link of my creative chain. From the creative drip feed from my mind vault, to forethought, experienced judgements, my right eye pressed hard against the viewfinder, and senses working overtime, responses, reflex, to pressing the shutter button. Nikon then joins in and becomes the last link in the flow by recording the complete electrical impulse in full, the impulse that first sparked within the brain’s right hemisphere and ending as an orderly million-piece jigsaw of pixels 1/8000 seconds later.
I did not think much of it early on, but now after 30 years of photography I know it is part of my life, my heart and my soul. It is something that has come into my life, but which has now defined me and shaped the person who I have become. I live each minute of the day seeing the beauty of things around me, and I continually watch light and shadows and how they play with each other. Photography and light mean quite a lot to me, it is in my blood. It is my Ikigai, [A Japanese concept that means] my purpose in life.
BYO: What do you look for when appraising a photo?
Carr: I’ll work backwards. First, absorb the final image. Love, hate, admire or question. Then I’ll look closely at the equation, the formula, and process all the variables that came to its conclusion.
Most importantly, I’ll then look closely for its DNA. I’ll place the photograph under the microscope and find clues for the physical or mental effort to get to that point. I’ll look for the photographer’s personality, the photographer’s thought pattern, the photographer’s muscle, or any external forces the photographer faced and challenged.
Some of the time I’ll try and find beauty in the imperfections, the things that aren’t quite right. Wabi Sabi.
BYO: How has photography as a craft and a profession developed in your career?
Carr: The digital revolution has allowed photography to be rediscovered and reinvented. It has evolved and taken the same rollercoaster ride like most instruments of the digital revolution. Photographs are being shared more now, and they are being seen by many more eyes than ever before.
The mass media of today’s digital world has vulgarised the idea of consuming photography, the web — a.k.a. the new generation in mass media — has vulgarised even the concept of creating photography. Slowly, photography itself is becoming a commodity. It is free, it is simple, it is direct. And so, the value is transferring itself from the product (photograph) to the artist (photographer). Photographers need to grasp this opportunity and show that photography is much more than just wallpaper, it can be a work of art that is in everyone’s reach. More so than ever before.
BYO: Where do you see photography heading next?
Carr: Ironically, I sometimes ask myself as to whether the moment of greatest photographic plenitudes has pushed photography to the point of exhaustion.
The numbers are mind-boggling: 350 million photographs a day uploaded on Facebook; 95 million photographs and videos shared on Instagram daily. The combined number of images uploaded to both platforms now exceeds 290 billion.
No one could have predicted the seismic shift that has occurred in our relationship with – and use of – the photographic image.
However, no amount of camera technology will turn a mediocre photographer into a great one, nor, in conceptual terms, will it transform a bad idea into a good one.
The future is already here, and photography is the medium shaping it.
Entries for the Nikon photo contest have now closed. Judging continues until September, when the winners will be announced.