Unexpected: Balletic or Brutish? Picturing Football

By DPLA, February 1, 2015.
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[This is the second post in our new series, Unexpected, which covers thematic discoveries in our collection. In case you missed it, the first post covered unusual snow removal machines.]

Bringing together over 15,000 photographs of football, from its origins after the Civil War to the Super Bowl era, and from over a thousand collections around the United States, presents an opportunity to see in one place how this uniquely American sport has been played—and imagined. Photography itself evolved in concert with the sport, from lantern slides of players to aerial shots of stadiums.

From the very beginning, however, one constant has been the tension between picturing football as balletic and gentlemanly, or chaotic and brutish.

Eadweard Muybridge’s 1887 collotype of a nude man punting a football put the sport squarely into the graceful category, showing the wide range of motion involved in a kick.


[Eadweard Muybridge. Animal locomotion: an electro-photographic investigation of consecutive phases of animal movements. 1872-1885 / published under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania. Plates. The plates printed by the Photo-Gravure Company. Philadelphia, 1887. Image courtesy of the University of Southern California Libraries]

The fully extended leg of the punter, pictured in the upper left of Muybridge’s series, became common one in sports photography—a kickline of one:


[Image courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection via the University of Southern California Libraries]


[Image courtesy of the University of Virginia Special Collections]

Catching the football also presented the photographer with an opportunity to depict football as ballet:


[Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library via Digital Commonwealth]

Early photographs often showed football players in suits and tuxedos, as the 1869 Rutgers team wore in their team photograph after beating Princeton in the very first college game:


[Image courtesy of the New York Public Library]

For photographs of football formations, ties and jackets were sometimes worn.


[Image courtesy of the Archives and Special Collections at the University of Montana via the Mountain West Digital Library]

But the fact that football, unlike baseball, was based on contact—in many cases, extreme contact—made it clearly open to other interpretations. Faster film, which required less exposure to light, could not only capture the punter and wide receiver at work; it could capture the moment of impact, leading to distinctly different images of football.



[Images courtesy Springfield College Archives and Special Collections via Digital Commonwealth]

Many of these photographs effectively create freeze-frame sculpture, heightened with the painful knowledge of what is about to be felt by the player under assault.


[Image courtesy of the Austin History Center at the Austin Public Library, via the Portal to Texas History]

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[Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library via Digital Commonwealth]

The cameras may have changed radically and film is now virtually obsolete, but you’ll undoubtedly see these two photographic styles in the coverage of today’s Super Bowl. Football: still balletic, still brutal.