Award-winning sports photographer Mike Powell makes his publishing debut with the work A Game to Love In Celebration of Tennis (Abrams April 2011). The book contains 500 images which capture a year in tennis at the majors. Along with the images are the words of many tennis greats including John McEnroe, Billie Jean King, Steffi Graf, Boris Becker, and Rod Laver. Mike Powell’s work has appeared in magazines such as Sports Illustrated and ESPN. Tennis Panorama News caught up with the always-on-the-go 25 year sports photography veteran Mike Powell who answered a few questions about the book and the world of sports photography.
Karen Pestaina for Tennis Panorama News: What led you into photography?
Mike Powell: I was introduced to photography by my brother, Steve, who started out as a photojournalist and moved into sports. I started working weekends and school holidays at his agency, Allsport photographic, in South London. I donâ€™t think child labor had been banned by then.
My bedroom, when I was 13 years old, was covered in sports photos, not because I was a great sports fan but I just loved great sports photography and luckily Allsport in those days was the best. I was looking around for what to do and knew that I wanted to be out â€œin the fieldâ€ so to speak and have a high level of autonomy. The rush of coming back from an event and looking at the work you did on the light table was significant and hard to beat. So At 16 I ditched the idea of further education and started in the darkroom at Allsport and shooting whenever I could.
TPN: You’ve been a sports photographer for 25 years, why a book now? What inspired you to do this?
MP: Iâ€™ve been involved in numerous books throughout my career but always as part of a team of photographers. This is my first solo effort.
Lewis Blackwell, the books editor, approached me to do this project. He had done a couple of successful photo books with P.Q. Blackwell a company that creates beautiful photo books and gets publishers for them, they were interested in creating a sports photo book. After much chat I was commissioned two books, A Game to Love and The Greatest Race, a book on the Tour de France that will come out later in 2011.
TPN: How long did the book take to complete?
MP: It was the focus of the year that turned out to be very busy. What with shooting the Winter Olympics and the Tour de France and numerous jobs in between.
I shot all four Grand Slams in 2010. Plus the research, editing, post, match prints, design and printing. It filled much of 2010.
TPN: From reading the book you have a very special bond with tennis, could you talk about it?
MP: I would say that my special bond is with athletes across all sports. I love turning my attention to different sports and digging deep into that sport. My bond with tennis came from growing up and being part of a photo agency that was very close to Wimbledon and saw the work of photographers I respected during a generation of players like Connors, McEnroe, Borg, Becker. I had a brief glimpse of centre court on finals day from the standing section and continued to shoot tennis mainly in the US amongst all the other sports I shot. Going back to Wimbledon and being on Centre court for finals was indeed a highlight in my career. Itâ€™s a very special place.
TPN: Out of the four major tournaments, what is your favorite one to shoot and the most challenging one to shoot and why?
MP: As I said earlier, Centre court at Wimbledon is a highlight of the four Slams. However there are pros and cons to every tournament. The red clay at the French, clean advertising free backgrounds at Wimbledon, the light in Melbourne and the night games in front of massive crowds at Flushing are all favorites parts of the tournaments. But if I had the choice to do one event every year it would probably be Wimbledon, although I was spoilt last year with two weeks of non-stop sunshine so that might have influenced my opinion!
TPN: In terms of players, which are your favorites to shoot?
MP: Definitely Nadal and Monfils for the athleticism of them both, the power of Rafa but also the unexpected when Monfils is playing.
TPN: What are the unique challenges of shooting tennis compared to other sports?
MP: Tennis happens in a very confined environment. A tennis court is pretty small. However, all the positives that photographers get excited about from events that happen on a larger or grander scale happen within the tennis stadium. Great and ever changing light, fast action, emotions, turning points and intimacy, more so than almost any other sport. As a photographer on courtside you have to be very aware that you are incredible close to the athletes at time and that there are moments of quiet during the game when the players donâ€™t want to hear from you. Other than that it is similar in many ways to other sports. Timing and an understanding of the sport are crucial.
TPN: Do have a personal favorite photo or photos that you would tell others “this epitomizes my work.”
MP: Yes on both counts and they are at opposite ends of the spectrum. The work that epitomizes my work would probably be the peak action moments, Rafa on the cover or celebrating his victory at Wimbledon pumping both fists and up on his toes. The series on Serena at Wimbledon hitting hard and finally fist pumping and screaming.
My personal favorites are the images that surprised me, quieter more reflects moments or graphic shapes. Rafa from the semi finals at Wimbledon with his arms out and amazing lightÂ (pg 2-3). The hats from above at Roland Garros. The direction post at the Aussie open. Rafaâ€™s taped fingers on the trophies. Small moments from with the height of battle or flavors of the Slam that only looked great on the twentieth time past, when the light was perfect.
TPN: What advice would you give to aspiring sports photographers?
MP: Shoot, shoot and shoot some more.
Develop your own eye. I see a lot of very repetitive images in sports. Try and look at what you are shooting in new ways. This is very hard but just slight changes can keep things fresh. Force yourself to put down long lenses and try to make a picture on a short lens. That way you force yourself to see and interpret the usual in a way you havenâ€™t before.
TPN: What have been some of the major changes in sports photography since you began you career?
MP: This is where I start sounding like an old timer.
Technology in photography has made the bar a lot lower. There are a lot more sports photographers capable of shooting good hard action pictures that not so long ago would have been very difficult and even award winners. When I was shooting action on long manual focus lenses and making sure my exposure was perfect on low iso slide film it was technically very challenging.
What this has done though is open up whatâ€™s possible with the equipment. Just because you can outshoot a guy from 10 years ago blindfolded doesnâ€™t mean you can be lazy now. Now, standing out means having your own opinion and making it show through your work, more so now than ever your own eye is even more important.
TPN: What do you think is the future of sports photography?
MP: Like the current trend in photography and across almost every creative realm, technology will have an enormous influence. Cameras now are improving at far more rapid rate than during the film era, this will allow photographers almost continual shooting or just skipping the individual frames and shoot high speed motion with the quality of a still. This is not far away, maybe even here, just not applied yet.
I also see the role and creative offerings of TV and photographers, specifically at events, become closer and closer.
This then brings in another change, more lawyers, access to sport and athletes is already highly controlled. TV pays for the rights of access and broadcast. The stills world has taken on some of these ideas from TV but in the interest of still being considered a news source rather than an event packager has not completely taken on the TV model. I see this being an area of continuing debate with pressure being applied more and more for sports/teams/athletes etc having exclusive deals with specific agencies and photographers.
I hope with the continued corporatization of sport and all the peripheries there will still be a place for guys like me to shoot a book like this.
A Game to Love is not just a book of tennis photographs, it’s a piece of art. Its 500 images are a “Tennis Louvre” in a book in terms ofÂ photography. A must buy not only for tennis fans but for lovers of superb photography that celebrate and elevate sport.
To view the galleries for A Game To Love – click here.
A Game to Love is available where books are sold including Amazon.com.