Artist Blog

Every week an artist whose single image was published by Der Greif is given a platform in which to blog about contemporary photography.

SPORT: A Journal of Studies

Feb 19, 2021 - Matthew Shain

I love basketball. As the tallest kid in my class and with decent coordination,I knew it was an arena where I would be appreciated. I wasn’t the best player but as an adolescent, I understood that I had some value to a group, which gave me some sense of purpose and belonging. I only played through high school because eventually, I related less to the game and more to other interests.


Then, years later, my favorite team ascended from the bottom of the stat columns to become repeat NBA champions. Where my affinity had become more of a background hum, something I periodically checked in on, it flourished seemingly overnight into a passion. Full-blown fandom. But something was still missing. As much as I was in awe of the numbers the team and certain players would produce, that wasn’t where my devotion truly lived. The records being pursued and broken were interesting anecdotes, but they didn’t really satisfy me. I began to play more basketball at this time too, an activity I had let languish for several years. On the court, the competition and camaraderie was inspiring. Individuals, strangers many of them, would quickly gel into a group with a shared purpose and unspoken hierarchies. It was both fragile and strong. Everything was open to challenge and subjected to judgment, but as long as you played hard, everything was fair. In pick-up basketball, there are no stats. It only matters that you contribute in some noticeable way.


And so with my body, I rediscovered the game in my mind. As I would read the sports section, the words and images recapping the narrative of the game blurred. I thought to myself, “I want to make my own photographs of basketball games.” But I wanted my pictures to convey what I felt on the court, that poetic balance of the body with the ball in relation to the one defending the hoop. There is aggression there, but violence is codified to be against the rules. The ball is truly the object, not the player. There is no tackling (football), no punching or checking (hockey), yet the court is small and full of bodies and the game is fast and greatly improvised. It’s a beautiful balancing act of restraint and aggression, judgment and determination.
I tried to get access to professional and even college level games, but couldn’t without press credentials. I tried shooting at outdoor courts but didn’t like the visual aesthetic, plus I would rather have been playing. I did end up finding a very high-level summer league to shoot, but quickly realized I was in way over my head. Professional sports photographers make it look so easy. Trust me, it is not. Without strobe lights rigged on the rafters I couldn’t hope to freeze the action in the frame. And with an extremely high speed ISO setting, the aesthetic was once again unappealing. I continued to play and read the sports section, both as a fan and for research, but much as my favorite team won, the stories still bored me. One day, I began absentmindedly blocking out one of the photos in the paper with a black grease pencil. I slowly realized I was seeking information within the image by eliminating other information. But the process required rules and boundaries, not unlike the game itself. First I took out the background, anything out of focus. Then I obscured the branding and text – the uniforms, shoes and any ads caught in the frame, the scoreboards and shot clocks. The caption beneath the photos invariably mentioned the depicted players’ names, but I figured that if the team name has been discarded from the image, then so should the identities of the players, so I blocked out their faces, too. What was left was the court, the hoop and the arms and legs of the players. That was enough to see that the hands and arms told the story I was looking for. They stretched and flexed, recoiled, tangled and touched. Their form, poise and isolation in the blackness all got to the essence I sought, that balletic improvisation bordering on chaos but bound by discipline in pursuit of victory. The rule would be that I black out everything in the frame that borders the arms including bracelets and braces worn on the arms. Only the flesh would be left exposed. I choses India ink as my medium for its opacity, lack of bleeding and relation to the ink already on the pages.


I continued the project for most of a year, selectively clipping photos from newspapers and blocking them out according to my system. Not all were successful and so I had to edit them down significantly. I aimed to distill the final arrangement to a grand narrative of a single, imaginary game. I consider the resulting works studies in that I wanted to understand how the images conveyed the beauty of the game, the attack (offense), response (defense), struggle, frustration, elation and team-ness, all with the grace and style those bodies conveyed even in the fraction of a second that the image was originally made. To do so, I felt I had to free the images, and thus the sport, from the columns and rows of statistics, from the game-specific narrative when they were actually shot, from the idol worship of celebrities, from commercial branding and Capitalism itself. It did trouble me to erase the players’ identities. After all, they deserved credit for their hard work and accomplishments, but that’s what the original press photo was for. My use of those images served a different purpose and individuality was at odds with that.


Since these studies were all made on flimsy, non-archivable newsprint, I had to rephotograph them, which has put the project into a liminal state. The photographed drawings lack the delicate one-of-a-kindness of the originals, but the originals are too unstable to physically expose to the world. For now, the work remains a study that I revisit regularly as I contemplate ways of physically manifesting it. I share this selection here with you more as a window into my process than a finished presentation, like a game in progress.