Capturing Athleticism: From Ballet to Baseball
By Anita Sheih
In every photograph, a moment is captured—a moment of surprise, serenity, or sometimes, superb athleticism. In Henry Leutwyler’s photographs of Misty Copeland, he captures the lean muscles and graceful dexterity of the esteemed ballerina in motion and in stillness. In Tabitha Soren’s Fantasy Life photographs, she creates unique action tintypes of minor league baseball players through a complex technical process of photographic emulsion on thin sheets of metal. In their work, these celebrated artists reveal the power of photography to document, express, and preserve both the prowess and passion of athletes at work.
With unfaltering confidence and control, Misty Copeland leaps and glides on the stage and in front of the lens, perfectly poised and powerful. In Leutwyler’s images, her face maintains a certain composure, even while her body performs unbelievable feats. Muscles rippling and feet ever pointed, Copeland’s grace and precision are frozen in a single frame as she levitates into eternity, reminding the viewer exactly how she became the first black female principal dancer for the distinguished American Ballet Theatre.
In Leutwyler’s action shots of Copeland, every detail is accounted for, down to the angle of her fingers. An effort of collaboration between performer and photographer, Copeland may have struck these poses a dozen times to get the perfect photograph at just the right height, angle, and moment. Whether her arms are folded and legs crossed like a falling petal, or arms extended and legs outstretched like a shooting star, countless factors aligned just so for the successful execution of each of these photographs.
In perhaps the most overt celebration of the dancer’s athleticism, one image portrays Copeland from the back, arms thrown above her head and legs pointed outwards in a vertical jump. Her head is turned to the left and tilted slightly downward, as if she is glancing calmly back at the viewer. Her form is impeccable, and the shadows of her musculature and outlines of her athletic physique are on full display.
Leutwyler also made sure to capture the dancer in balanced stasis too, with some photographs featuring positions closer to resting. In one image, Copeland bends at the waist, demonstrating her impressive flexibility, with her palms flat on the ground. Her head is tucked in toward her chest, and her eyes are closed, as if she is taking a deep breath in the calm before the storm, in the moments backstage before the show begins. But it cannot be forgotten that Copeland is here to work, as she executes this stretching pose while still en pointe, her feet arched and calves flexing, at the ready. Another image shows the dancer adjusting the straps of her shoes, again bending, but this time in full costume, light pink tutu splayed out behind her. The shoes are worn at the toes, reflective of the extreme duress that they and her feet and body endure through her practice, a reminder of the physicality of dance amidst the velvet and tulle.
In Soren’s photos from her book Fantasy Life, shots of minor league baseball players capture all aspects of the game—from batting to catching, running, jumping, sliding, and even resting—in a series of unique tintypes, of which there only exists a single physical copy of each photograph. Soren experimented with and perfected her own method of creating action-shot tintypes over the course of the 12 years she worked on this project, trying various techniques like shooting players holding poses in broad daylight or shooting images off of paused television screens. The fruits of her labor produced a remarkable set of textured, unpredictable, organic representations of these athletes in all stages of the sport.
In a dramatic action shot of the moment after a swing, a player’s arms are raised, gloved hands gripping the bat, face cast downward and blocked from the viewer’s gaze, as the rest of his body assumes the final stance of contortion that allows for the full follow-through of a proper swing. The photo exhibits high contrast, as the player’s saturated body is silhouetted against the bright background of a metal fence, displaying the full force and momentum of a completed swing. The shadows cast by the backlighting through the pattern of the fence add to the theatrical staging of the photograph.
Another action shot features two players leaping with gloves outstretched to catch a flyball that is barely distinguishable in the grainy photograph. Members of the crowd standing in the rafters above watch in anticipation, looking down at the players suspended in midair, feet pointed and bodies pulled taut for that extra inch that may allow them to make the out. Even though no faces are visible from the distance at which this photo was taken, the suspense and framing of the moment makes it feels as if everyone in it is holding their breath.
Two players embrace in a lively celebration, with one player lifted entirely off the ground and mouth open wide proclaiming victory. The other player stands supporting him, slightly off kilter and tilting toward the right, sharing in the festivity. The background is entirely blurred, but the importance of the scene melts away as the players rejoice, leaving the viewer to wonder what play or call led to this ecstasy of wrinkled uniforms and mid-air revels. The sheer joy emanating off the tintype is reminiscent of the greatest moments of baseball, America’s favorite pastime, from Babe Ruth’s 500th home run on August 11, 1929, to the cherished childhood memory of playing catch in the backyard that is shared by so many.
But not all of Soren’s shots of the players are so high energy. One quiet image depicts a player in a helmet with a bat in his left hand bending over at the waist, pausing either before or after a swing. The texture of the dirt ground and the details of his uniform are sharply in focus, as the background behind him fades into darkness. It feels as if he is alone on the field, alone in this moment of intense concentration or perhaps sadness. His arms dangle, entirely lax, and his face is again hidden from view, allowing only guesses at the emotions he felt at the time the photograph was taken. These still photos in Soren’s series reveal the moments of rest and breath and recollection that these athletes must also engage in to allow for the other moments of impassioned physical exertion and high emotions.
Both of these photo series not only show viewers what they might see at a performance or a game but also allow viewers to experience the intensity and inspiration they might feel from witnessing such extraordinary athletes in action. From ballet to baseball, Leutwyler and Soren have come to understand the many layers and expressions of athleticism, and they have captured those mysteries, secrets, and truths in their photographs for us to see too.
To see more of Henry Leutwyler’s work, please click here.
To see more of Tabitha Soren’s work, please click here.