I've been looking at a whole lot of Olympian portraits in the past three days—present and past.
My favorite from these games so far is this portrait for TIME magazine, descriptively entitled "Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas eats breakfast while stretching on the stairs of her host family’s home in Des Moines, Iowa." (Larger version here.)
It's by German-born Martin Schoeller, one of the biggest of the big super-slick pros right now, a guy in the full flower of a major commercial career. Later this week, TIME will roll out three simultaneous covers, all portrait of Olympians by Martin. (A fourth was planned, but the athlete unfortunately faltered and didn't make it to London.)
The shot of Gabby Douglas on the stairs is a set up shot, and my tastes do tend toward found photographs—the pros I tend to follow are usually photojournalists rather than advertising and fashion guys or the editorial photographers who follow their stylistic leads. But it's not a picture I've seen before, which is a relief: that is, the "athlete stretching on stairs" shot is not a meme that everybody and his brother dutifully coughs up on command. In fact it even accesses some of the whimsy and surprise that can be found in real candids—although a set-up scene, I almost get the feeling that it's something the photographer discovered rather than created (even if it's not).
At the same time—creating a tension, for me—is the way it simultaneously references the "tableau" style from the art photography world, the work of photographer/artists who craft careful recreations of ideas about life.
Even the typical slickness—the perfection of lighting and makeup that, I have to keep reminding myself, some people like—is counterbalanced by all those beautiful random shapes in the upper corners and by the apparently casual presence of the little girl and the backpacks on either side of her. (I'm sure there was actually nothing casual or random about their placement. But it works.)
The stretch itself screams "athlete." At least to me. It takes me ten minutes to touch my toes.
Best of all is the wonderful expression on Gabby Douglas's beautiful face—the super-confident, self-contained look of the highly trained, superbly skilled athlete. It sets everything else off.
Just love the pic.
Your favorite might be a different one. You can see more of Martin's athletes at TIME LightBox. There's a nice brief video of Martin at work at the same link.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Anton Wilhelm Stolzing: "Roland Barthes: 'A photograph's punctum is that accident [of photographic detail] which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me), ...for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole—and also a cast of the dice.' It seems Mr. Schoeller has read his Barthes."
Featured Comment by Andrew Molitor: "I agree with almost everything you say about the shot, Mike, except that I think the lighting is terrible. The light screams 'studio' while the scene says 'home' and the conflict damages the image for me substantially. It's almost surrealist, but not quite that either. The athlete and the setup are fantastic, though, I agree completely."
Mike replies: I do agree that I would be happier if it were more naturalistic. But then, that's a prejudice with me, so I have to be on guard against it—I almost always prefer photographs that are more naturalistic (even when it's faked!). Still, I can understand how that undesirable tension (between studio cues and location cues) is a problem for you.