NCAA Women’s Basketball

Repost: Women’s Basketball Photography: A Story I’ve Wanted to Tell for Years

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There are probably a lot of different types of photography that any one photographer might not like.

For me personally, one type of photography that would have definitely been included on my short list of what I don’t like is baseline basketball photography of the type that is seen in major newspapers and sports magazines all over the country. I don’t want to get into knocking anyone’s work. But the images that I’d always seen were to me incredibly boring and I thought more than once that if I had to do that job, night in and night out, I would rather not be a photographer at all.

So when the opportunity came up for me to shoot women’s basketball as a baseline photographer, I jumped on it. Of course! That’s me. A proven hypocrite once more.

First, I loved women’s basketball at the time of the offer. And I still do love it but probably nothing like those early days before I was involved with the hard work of content creation around the sport and not just sitting around ruminating about it. And, of course, I love photography.

Beyond the technical challenges, which I instinctively went at with the idea of using the fastest and best Nikon lenses, there was a complete blank drawn in my mind about what exactly I should be shooting at these basketball games. And yes, even now it sounds like an easy question to answer. You shoot the action, dummy.

Turns out though, that’s about as much of an answer as it would be to tell an out of shape photographer to go out on the floor and just play winning basketball with and against these great talented athletes on the court.

Just do it! Right? 

Oh sure, it’s JUST that easy.

An added problem is that I wanted to be really good at this and immediately. I put a ton of pressure on myself right from the start. That pressure and the distractions of trying to take good photographs completely took me away from what was happening in terms of the actual basketball games for years.

Who were the great players? How good was the team? What defense is that? All of that was instantly of no interest to me whatsoever. All I wanted to do and all I could think about was being good at what I was there to do.

I knew, KNEW, that the pictures I took would live maybe for a very long time on the internet with MY name attached to them. That was very scary for me. So for years into the endeavor it was completely normal for me not to even know the score of a game I was sitting four feet away from.

All I could think about was that I had to keep looking for and shooting great shots or I would end up with people seeing subpar work with my name on it and those people thinking, meh, this guy isn’t very good. lol.

So I had this friend who was an editor at the New York Times and I asked her what the heck was I supposed to shoot at the first contest I was credentialed to attend, an NCAA women’s game at Pepperdine University between the Pepperdine Waves and one of the always powerful teams from Gonzaga.

My friend sent me a bunch of sports images. And she asked me a question. What do all these pictures have in common?

I looked at the shots and I have to admit, I immediately got it. They were each and every one taken at the most extreme instant of competition. Two players diving for a ball or jumping for a rebound. Arms and bodies absolutely extended to the extreme range of what the human anatomy will allow..

Okay. I had something to shoot for. Thank you, Miss New York Times.

But that wasn’t enough. So I had to ask myself, what do I like to photograph?

What is it that I watch or look for when I’m watching sports? What matters to ME? What do I find interesting about sports?

Well that was kind of an easy answer to come up with as well. I like communication, both demonstrative and out front for all the world to see, but also subtle and psychological. Silent communication. Involuntary tells that flash across people’s faces. Things that might not even be there but are there for me, things that I think I see and that I think have meaning. Things that I can point a camera at and photograph as proof or evidence that they are there.

Okay. Now I had something to go on.

So I showed up at Pepperdine in Malibu. I was nervous. I thought a) they wouldn’t let me in the front door, and b) security and everyone in the place would be watching me for one false un-Sports Illustrated-like move so that they could expel me from their midst and get on with their big-time college basketball game.

It’s an unusual arena. The court is open on one end where the lobby actually is and the small concession stand etc. You walk past all of that to either immediately grab a seat on the near baseline or to walk around to the far baseline. I figured the further I could get myself into the place the harder it would be to get me out of there so I began to walk around the court to get to the other side.

As I said, I came to this a) hating baseline basketball photography anyway and wanting to do something different, and b) somehow holding in my mind the desire to photograph the things that I see and are interested in in both basketball and life and that is communication of thought either from one person to another or contained in the faces of those I photograph.

(Whether the latter is really there or not is for me kind of not up for debate. If I see it, I think I can photograph it. If it’s still there then I think I have photographed it. As the cliche goes, your mileage may vary.)

Anyway. But certainly player-to-player communication was what I was most looking for in shooting women’s basketball. Not the standard action shots but something different.

Well, as I was walking around to the baseline where I’d chosen to make my stand against security and school officials should they get wind of my lack of baseline gravitas I SAW a shot. Just like that. Before I could even get to my spot. I saw my whole purpose for being there come into a frame in my mind right from the sideline.

So I lifted my camera and snapped the following shot. That’s my first ever photograph of a women’s or anyone else’s basketball game.

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I’d barely broken stride and I looked at that picture as I continued to walk to my spot. I probably thought something like, thank you and good night, ladies and gentlemen. I don’t remember. But there it is. 24 for the home team is calling for the ball and 22 is thinking about accommodating her in the face of a daunting Gonzaga defense. There is a micro basketball story captured in one image.

I would have to admit that in the many subsequent years of taking pictures at women’s games, mostly WNBA games, I don’t think I ever did anything that I could call ‘better’ than what I did on that first night. Technically maybe. But the truth is the more I shot and the better the images may have gotten technically, the farther away I got from what I’d initially set out to do in shooting women’s basketball. So there’s that.

Anyway. Here are a few shots from that night. All I can recover in these modern days of not having an optical drive on my Macs. 😉

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Cheerleaders: A Love Story

When I first started shooting women’s basketball, the instructions from my boss at the publication were to not just bring back action shots from the floor, but shots of fans, cheerleaders, the band, etc. Everything and anything that would capture the atmosphere in the arena.

But he made it pretty clear that what he really wanted was cheerleader shots. That should be perfectly understandable; it’s an online publication, he needs traffic just as much as any other online publication does. And pretty girls equal heavy traffic.

No better place on Earth than to fulfill our need for click bait than the campus of USC, where the cheerleaders are icons of youth, beauty, energy, and style. I’ve seen a lot of cheerleaders, but USC’s “Song Girls” (that’s right, they don’t even call them cheerleaders) are in a class all their own.

But these fabulous ladies strut their stuff at Rose Bowl games played on New Years Day which decide the national championship of college football. (Or they did back then, anyway.) There can’t be any question that sitting on the baseline during sparsely attended women’s basketball games would be on the other end of the spectrum for the Song Girls in terms of the excitement and exposure they enjoy as USC’s finest.

So, in that first season, when a pasty middle-aged male pointed his long lens in their direction as they dutifully performed their Song Girl responsibilities at women’s basketball games, more than once I came away with looks like this.

Beautiful, yes. But I pride myself on being able to read people’s faces and maybe, hopefully, photograph what they might be feeling or thinking at the instant I trip the shutter. This was not good.

Where’s the famous USC ‘V’ for Victory sign? This seems to be teetering dangerously into ‘Hit the Road Jack’ territory and I’m just glad the razor thin depth of field on this shot only captured the scornful glare of Song Girl number one. I don’t know that my ego could have survived all three of them giving me that look.

Okay, I’ve had my fun with this shot. It was just an instant, it wasn’t planned, I know that. But I don’t think the looks being given to me here are at all misleading. After all, I was there before and after this shot was taken. I kind of know.

But I persevered, as a man with a camera is sometimes known to do. I continued to work the baselines of USC and other schools and accumulated my share of pretty good cheerleader shots to go along with hundreds of, I hope, pretty good basketball shots.

It was probably in the third season when I had prints made of some digital images and, just to see how colors in these lighting environments transferred to print, I threw in to the order a handful of the better cheerleader shots.

Well, I really liked the way the cheerleader shots looked from USC. The lighting in the Galen Center is fantastic. Colors were gorgeous, the subjects were stunning.

And far from the somewhat violated look I got from the ladies in the image above, the Song Girls had gotten used to me and went about their business and I went about mine. The images I took of cheerleaders became very good.

So I decided that I should share the prints of the images I took of them with USC’s Song Girls. I put about a half dozen in an envelope, including the image at the very top and the two below, and, I think, it was at halftime one afternoon that I handed them off to the sports information director for women’s sports at USC, who shall remain nameless because she’s a wonderful lady and we subsequently become pals and I don’t want to drag her into any of this.

At that point, however, she really didn’t know me and when I said I had some cheerleader shots that I really liked she kind of gave me a look and muttered something about not being interested in pictures of cheerleaders. But I handed her the envelope anyway and asked her to pass them along to whomever is in charge of the Song Girls.

Never heard another word about my cheerleading pictures. As I said, the SID and I became pals as I continued to shoot USC basketball for the next couple of years. USC even presented one of my shots, blown up large, to a graduating senior. That was a tremendous honor. The SID told me once to keep doing what I was doing, calling it a ‘fine art’ style of baseline shooting. Oh yes, that SID was a pal o’ mine.

But here’s the punch line. Starting maybe the next season, and for the rest of my two or so years shooting USC, I literally could not point my camera at the USC cheerleaders (or majorettes even) without finding them already looking at me. Smiling broadly. I would notice them looking at me as I sat there doing absolutely nothing. It was all so obvious. I told my significant other about it, she agreed it was happening and we would laugh about it.

The USC Song Girls were now very willing subjects for me. Too willing. It was hard to get the spontaneity, the far off looks in someone’s eyes that you only get in truly candid moments. It was no longer sports journalism; it was something else, and the pictures were never quite the same.

And, of course, I LOVED every minute of it.

Anyway. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, as my mom used to say. And I’m not going to be humble regarding the images. I think these shots are almost iconically wonderful images of the USC Song Girls, caught candidly doing what they so cheerfully do for the University of Southern California.

Hope you like them as much as the subjects seemed to.