INTERESTING ARTICLES: When and why did cricket photography start purveying bubblegum?

My Eagar and my Morris long ago


Later this year, a book will be released with an otherworldly title, talking about what is increasingly looking like an otherworldly exercise. An advance copy came to me as a paperback, uncorrected bound proof published by riverrun, an imprint of Quercus.

The book is about cricket photography, and is currently named Feeling is the Thing that Happens in 1000th of a Second: a Season of Cricket Photographer Patrick Eagar.

The season is 1975, when the first men’s cricket World Cup was followed by the Ashes. Australian writer Christian Ryan takes a bunch of photographs from that season and reverses the tired cliché about a picture and a thousand words. In thousands of words, he spells out the magic contained in a kind of cricket photograph whose like we do not see so much these days. He writes about some 1975 photographs, how they were arrived at, and what they came to mean.

But before any more, a disclaimer: this is not an objective review of Feeling, as I happen to know Ryan. Like many, I was first introduced to his writing with the myth-buster, Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and years later, met the man himself.

Leafing through Feeling provided an opportunity to revisit an art form created out of cricket – one that is currently emitting some kind of death rattle.

Feeling leaves behind the troublesome question: are our eyes and minds being fed bubblegum cricket pictures because we have invented machines where it’s faster and cheaper to churn out such bubblegum?

Among the cricket press, Eagar is something of a legend; mention his name and his photographs – wide landscapes, pearly clarity – flash past a generation’s eyes. Many manage to carry both the blur of motion and the stillness of the breath before the ball is bowled or the shot is played. The famous photograph of Jeff Thomson, leg stretched, slingshot at the ready. That’s Eagar. The portrait of Tony Greig in eternal sunshine. That too. The stripling Viv Richards’ run-outs in the World Cup final? Of course. Eagar himself belongs to the landscape of cricket – slightly slouched, bespectacled, bucket hat, forever courteous, never in a hurry.

Ryan’s explorations into Eagar’s world and how those pictures are what they are takes us to places never anticipated: the measurement of bowling speeds, the untidy early science of remote cameras, Vietnam and Oskar Schindler. Despite frenetic action playing itself out in some pictures, there is much to be said about the expansiveness of the photographs, maybe because they are largely in black and white, free of the clutter of too many sponsor logos in the background, on either clothes or equipment.

Yet this is not about nostalgia. Eagar’s images, through Ryan’s words, remind us of how today our eyes are being made to examine a game that is faster and stronger and more “action-packed” than it was in the 1970s. In the 2010s, cricket is magnificently captured by high-definition TV cameras, but why, strangely, do its still images appear, to the average viewer, well, somewhat ordinary? Humdrum even? More of been-there, seen-that rather than the thing that happens “in 1000th of a second”? Without the breathless wow or the tug of memory. And that when cameras today are more powerful, digital technology spells freedom, and communications are a breeze. Unlike an age without autofocus. Where hotel bathrooms were dark rooms where film was processed and printed.

Feeling leaves behind the troublesome question: are our eyes and minds being fed bubblegum cricket pictures because we have invented machines where it’s faster and cheaper to churn out such bubblegum?

Viv Richards runs out Alan Turner in the ’75 World Cup final. Would a modern equivalent of this photo give us the contextual details? © PA Photos

Eagar retired from cricket photography in 2011, in his late 60s, leaving behind a hefty gallery and a legacy that weighs heavily on his successors, who live though the crushing monotony of modern cricket photography, where the ease of technology overwhelms the singularity of the photographer’s eye. Tight crops, emotions, celebration. Over and over and over. An era of recapturing a state of play on film/digital has given way to conveyor-belt production of TV freeze-frames.

Photographer Graham Morris, a generation after Eagar, describes it, “Now you’ve got to be in someone’s face, you’ve got see them punching the air or holding their bat, and it’s cropped, so that you wouldn’t see anything behind them, you wouldn’t know what was going on at all.” In an interview to a photography magazine, Morris remembers he was asked to name the three best things to have happened to his profession, and replied, “modern cameras, the laptop and the internet”. When asked to name the three worst things about his profession, he said, “modern cameras, the laptop and the internet”.

The flat world created by the democratisation of camera technology and communication has led to a general flatness in the images produced in cricket. Morris says, “I would rather see action than reaction.” To quote Sir Ian, suddenly “it sort of clicks”.

During the 2017 India v Australia Test series, a photograph turned up in the Hindu: M Vijay bending low, taking a catch at gully off R Ashwin, the batsman, Josh Hazlewood, turning, alarmed; keeper Wriddhiman Saha still but eyes glued to the ball, or maybe the grass, non-striker Matthew Wade, hand on hip. Two minutes after this instant, a hullaballoo breaks out over whether the catch was clean. The DRS says the ball had been grassed under Vijay’s fingers. In the picture, every man is rooted, as if moving only deliberately, in slow motion. We are seeing action rather than reaction.

The flat world created by the democratisation of camera technology and communication has led to a general flatness in the images produced in cricket

The photographer was VV Krishnan, who considers Eagar and Morris his senior peers. Krishnan travelled extensively with the Indian team for close to two decades, and returned to Test cricket photography after a gap. He grew up in his job with the discipline of using film – on average, one roll; that is, 36 frames – every Test session, three rolls a day, two or three pictures transmitted at the end of every day, captions for every frame tucked away with the processed rolls. In the digital world, cricket photography means that photographers offer an excess of images: they shoot , the pros tell me, around seven to eight frames per ball bowled. Along with the noise of the crowd, the soundtrack of a 90-over, six-hour Test match day also includes the non-stop whirr of the motordrive.

The formula currently in play, with photo editors feeding off the cheaper mass stock pictures on offer, has its own vocabulary, an easy-to-see code. The most popular triptychs are those of the Leaping Centurion and the Tonsil View of Triumphant Bowler, and the most disingenuous of them all, Morris reveals, is the Mortification of the Dismissed Batsman. He is seen heading to pavilion, hand covering face or on forehead. The Mortification is actually one of the many frames taken as the dismissed batsman takes off his helmet and tries to rearrange his helmet-messed hair. Talk about a cheap shot.

What the pictures are losing is their context. As it is with cricket, so it is with football: Dutch photographer Hans van der Meer begins his European Fields project by talking of how space disappeared from football images. “The photographers,” he said, “had given up one of their most powerful weapons: the overview”, and the reason was technological improvement – faster film and the long lens. The typical modern football photograph “depicted two players and a ball set against an out-of-focus background, giving no sense of where on the pitch this fragment of action had occurred”. It was, van der Meer says, “around this time that television began broadcasting football matches. The role of providing the overview was taken over by television.”

In cricket photography, television has taken over the exercise of contemplation. Krishnan remembers Morris talking about a photographer wearing a “thinking cap” and even anticipating images. Morris says he considers himself the “12th player” on a field.

Action, not reaction: Krishnan captures the moment when Hazlewood edges to Vijay VV Krishnan / © The Hindu

“I am standing by the side of the captain because I’m looking through my long lens.” Thinking the game through as much as watching it. He says, “The worst thing for me is being taken by surprise. I actually think it’s amateurish if you go, ‘Wow, where did that come from?’ You have to be ahead of the game.” This is the photographer’s thinking cap, the human, mental equivalent of anticipating the camera’s “shutter lag”.

The lag still exists, Ryan writes, “between the pressing of the button and the rising of the mirror in the camera to take the picture. Due to which the photographer has to hit early. Similar to how slips or wicketkeepers before a ball grazes the blade’s edge sense a kind of pre-shimmer and start pre-twitching.”

Krishnan has a spooky memory from the Australia v India 2003-04 Brisbane Test: of looking at the scoreboard behind the batsmen during the first hour and seeing “c Laxman b Khan” against Matthew Hayden’s name. Krishnan changed position, Zaheer changed ends, and the first wicket of the series fell. ML Hayden c Laxman b Zaheer Khan 37, producing “an absolutely perfect frame”. He calls it “intuition”. Or the thinking cap working with a combination of concentration and predicting patterns of play.

The shorter formats of the game, both men say, are far simpler: “One-day cricket was easier and T20 was far easier. Things keep happening… people get out,” says Krishnan. Morris says T20 comes down to three pictures: a batting picture, someone bowled with stumps all over, someone on the boundary taking a catch.

Along with the noise of the crowd, the soundtrack of a 90-over, six-hour Test match day also includes the non-stop whirr of the motordrive

While there are many capable cricket photographers in the business – Philip Brown’s Shot Selection blog is a contemporary take on cricket photography – could a photographer of Eagar’s sensibility earn a living in the 21st century? Highly unlikely. Would their unique view of the game be noticed? Undoubtedly, but what if it didn’t pay the bills? Morris says, “If Patrick was still working now, he probably wouldn’t get many pictures published.” You imagine he would have to fall back on the cookie cutter and hope he got a good gig somewhere. The arty photographs with long shadows and many stories in one frame would remain in the laptop and commissions would be hard to come by.

Of course, technology is not evil and photography didn’t kill painting, nor did e-books kill books. In the case of cricket photography, though, while humankind has adapted, the market appears to have mutated. Could the images of the past return? Like retro? As high-end? It depends, both Morris and Krishnan say, on whether people want to use them. Or make a conscious choice to do so. “There’s no point being a replica of what television shows,” says Krishnan. Morris says the formulaic is what people are geared to expect now, because of television. “All people seem to want is punchy, in-your-face: slapping hands, leaping in their air, bat above your head, really predictable.”

The cricket photograph – no matter what the format – Krishnan says, should tell a story, that is distinct and relevant to that particular game, that could have come from nowhere but that particular time and place, with context and clarity. Eagar tells Ryan in Feeling that he wanted his photographs to support the reporter’s article. When the photo editors of today are presented with 200 pictures, what remains distinct from the day? Morris laughs, “Come back, Patrick, all is forgiven.”

Millennials would sneer at such 20th-century grumpiness, but hey, you’re the guys bringing vinyl back.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo