The Art of the Photo Finish

As millions watch the Summer Olympics opening ceremony this Friday, July 27, the best athletes in the world will officially open the Games of the XXX Olympiad. The next day, Saturday, July 28, Gifts from the Gods: Art and the Olympic Ideal opens at the Legion of Honor. Like the opening ceremony, and the Games themselves, this exhibition celebrates athletic achievement. Whereas the opening ceremony will be a huge spectacle, the winners of the events will be determined on a much smaller scale—with sometimes just milliseconds separating gold and silver medalists.

Golden wreath of laurels

Wreath.Greek, Hellenistic period, 4th–3rd century BC.Gold.Albert Campbell Hooper Memorial Purchase.1967.7

The tiny amount of time that determines the victor—that decisive moment—has been in the news lately. During the trials for the 100-meter dash, two American sprinters, Jeneba Tarmoh and Allyson Felix, finished so closely that the camera couldn’t capture the gap between them. In this rare case, even photography’s technological accuracy fell short. Eventually Tarmoh ceded her spot to Felix and in doing so lived up to the Olympic ideal of selflessness that the ancient Greeks would have appreciated. Several works in Gifts from the Gods examine the foundations of what has come to be known as the “photo finish”—a technology we are likely to see quite a lot of in the coming weeks.

Tarmoh and Felix crossing finish line

Photographers have attempted to capture this moment since the medium was developed, and Eadweard Muybridge was one of the very first to try. His series of photographs in Gifts from the Gods breaks down motion to give the viewer an accurate sense of exactly what happens when a man leaps over a bar. The technology used in Tarmoh and Felix’s time trial is obviously much more advanced than what Muybridge had to work with, but both instances share the same impulse to capture an otherwise fleeting moment.

Man jumping over a bar

Eadweard Muybridge (American, 1830–1904). Animal Locomotion (Self-Portrait), plate 153 from the book Animal Locomotion. An Electro-Photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements. Commenced 1872–Completed 1885, by Eadweard Muybridge (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1887)Collotype from dry-collodion-on-glass negative.Printed by Photo-Gravure, New York.Museum purchase, Emmett Solomon Memorial Fund.1992.39

In the example pictured below, Dr. Harold Edgerton’s photograph captures the precise moment when a tennis ball rebounds from a racket. The photograph shows how the ball and the strings deform on impact, and freezes the dynamic forces for our examination. There’s no “winner” here, but Edgerton’s idea of capturing motion that happens too fast for the human eye to follow shows how artists continued to be interested in the moment of impact—that instant when things change.

Ball hitting a racket

Dr. Harold Edgerton (American, 1903−1990). Tennis Ball Impact, 1938, printed ca. 1950.Gelatin silver print.Gift of David L. Davies and John D. Weeden.2008.66.14

This label from a Sunkist orange crate represents a more analog way to determine a race’s outcome. The anonymous artist here wasn’t trying to depict the decisive moment in a factual way, like Muybridge and Edgerton, but rather he aimed to illustrate an idealized victory to create a marketing image that makes people feel good. (Hopefully good enough to buy some oranges.) The breaking of the tape illustrated on this label is about idealizing that decisive moment to help sell a product.

Orange crate label with runners

Unidentified artist (American, 20th century).bAthlete” orange-crate label, ca. 1930−1940.Color offset lithograph.Gift of Carole A. Cohen.1997.158.9

The modern Olympic games are still, perhaps, the most valued way to determine the best sprinter in the world, or even the best badminton player, for that matter, even if we do lack the ability to measure these victories with perfect accuracy. But the Games are about more than mere measurements—they’re also about higher, more abstract goals, like the grace of bodies in motion, the striving for athletic perfection, and the cooperation of nations coming together.

Experience the art of athletics in Gifts from the Gods: Art and the Olympic Ideal on view at the Legion of Honor July 28, 2012-January 27, 2013.