In 1839, the phenomenon of the deguerrotype made a fixed photographic image possible. A piece of highly shined copper was coated with silver and exposed light; the result was a one-off still that couldn't be reproduced. As the art developed over the next few decades, a process called wet-plate collodion photography allowed the images to be copied and serve as momentos or records. It was also during this period that organized sports began capturing the public's attention, with boxing and bicycling early on, and football and baseball as the nineteenth century waned and the twentieth began. Crew was an especially popular sport, and champion rowers were often celebrities in the same manner as today's movie stars, with their pictures bought, sold, and collected.
Antiques dealer Brian Ramaeker has collected sports photography for fifteen years, and his assortment of pictures offers a glimpse into the simultaneous developments of sports and photography, and even into the collective mood of the nation. Brian didn't consciously intend to start a photography collection with sports as its theme, but the first of what would become some two thousand photos caught his attention simply because it appealed to him aesthetically. Many of the photos are of teams, almost all of them of men, and the hairstyles and clothing fix the picture's subjects neatly in their era. Brian notes that while some of the athletes sitting for the photographer could walk outside today without anyone noticing, many are decked out in the handlebar moustaches and derby hats that were so much a part of our perceptions of turn-of-the-century America.
Because the cameras of the time were heavy, and the process of shooting pictures still clumsy and deeply involved, there was no such thing as an action shot. Just to get the proper exposure for a photograph required the subjects to sit for long stretches of time, and if the image wasn't fixed to the plate immediately, it would be lost. Some photos in Brian's collection attempt to recreate the excitement of a batter's swing or a slide into home plate, but do so by suspending a baseball from the ceiling with a string, or posing players in their uniforms in an obviously staged cluster around a base. Most of the shots were of teams, however, set in front of a backdrop depicting Moorish temples and palm trees, standing on tiger-skin rugs in their cleats or their stocking feet, many times holding a ball with the year painted on it.
The uniforms are also interesting, oftentimes homemade and showing variations in the size and shape of collars, in materials, and the team name or letters. Sometimes the letters were stitched on somewhat crookedly or were shaped inconsistently. Much of what defined the picture though, says Brian, is a bemusement or perplexity on the faces of the athletes; photography was still a novelty, and despite attempts by the photographer to introduce composition to the pictures through artful arranging of people, there was a sense of the athletes not taking things all too seriously. Brian points out that these expressions changed with the onset and conclusion of World War I, betraying a more serious frame of mind, resulting, perhaps, from a loss of innocence about the country and state of the world.