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Take Me Out To The Renaissance

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Political writers like George Will and David Broder love baseball. Will, in fact, has written so eloquently about the game that his books rank for me along with those of Roger Angell, the lyrical essayist and editor whose work from the diamond has graced the pages of The New Yorker for decades.

I'm an ex-political writer and I too share the addiction, especially now at playoff time, even if my Yankees were blown out the water by the vastly underestimated Anaheim Angels. Football, soccer, tennis–don't even mention golf–can't hold a candle to baseball, at least not to this native New Yorker who grew up within walking distance of Yankee Stadium.

Why the baseball/politics nexus? Who knows? Maybe it's the fact that baseball has no time clock–that nothing is really decided until the final out.

Maybe it's more the fact that, like politics, baseball is a game of exquisitely countervailing forces [good pitching vs. good hitting; good local organization vs. special interest money]. Or the fact that baseball, like politics, seems a game of such utter simplicity [just get more runs–or votes–than the other side] yet in its strategies and tactics is as intricate in its details as a medieval tapestry.

Baseball is the classic "the more-you-know-the-more-you-realize-you-don't-know" game. In fact, where football is checkers, baseball is three-dimensional chess.

If the ex-political junkie in me loves baseball for its details, the photographer in me loves the game for its sheer beauty. When I was covering Washington for the New York Daily News, one of the perks of the job was to attend big-ticket sporting events with assorted Presidents. These ranged from the Army-Navy game, to the Kentucky Derby, to the Texas-Arkansas game, to the baseball All-Star game, to opening day at RFK Stadium, when Washington still had a baseball team.

But, with the possible exception of the dilapidated gentility of Churchill Downs on a perfect Derby Day with Richard Nixon, nothing matched the image that seared my memory the first time I saw Baltimore's Camden Yards, one of, if not the, most beautiful ballpark in America.

Granted, I grew up with the Yankees [in fact also with the Dodgers and the Giants, since they too were New Yorkers back then] and the refurbished Yankee Stadium is wonderful too, so I'm told. So for that matter is old Fenway Park in Boston, now slated for unforgivable demolition. Truthfully that place is a dump, but it's steeped in so much baseball history that one can forgive that it also is steeped in lousy seating and stale beer.

Venues aside, if you think of great sports photography, whether still or film or video, inevitably you will conjure images of baseball. Here, I am just going to list the first ones that came to my mind as I wrote this column...

*Jackie Robinson stealing home.

*Willie Mays' impossible over-the-shoulder catch.

*Joe DiMaggio's achingly beautiful swing.

*Yogi Berra jumping onto Don Larsen's chest after his perfect game.

*Nat Fein's poignant from-behind image of Babe Ruth bidding the game farewell [twinned with pix of a fatally ill Lou Gherig stifling a sob at home plate as he tells fans he considers himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth."]

*Mookie Wilson's grounder going through Bill Buckner's ancient legs during the '86 Mets-Boston World Series – so tragic and public a blooper that even Mets fans felt bad for him.

*Reggie Jackson's unbelievable three home runs in one Series game.

*Mark McGwire breaking Roger Maris' home run record, then sharing the moment tearfully and graciously with Maris' widow and family.

*The new Iron Man, Cal Ripken, just showing up for work on his record-breaking day in 1995 when the baseball world went sentimentally wild for this incredibly decent and remarkably skilled ballplayer.

*Derek Jeter's circus play in foul territory backhanding the ball for an out in last year's thrilling (yet also heartbreaking) World Series between the Yanks and the (then) spectacular Arizona Diamondbacks.

Still, almost every image I have listed here came during a major baseball event or game, and often it was the action captured as much as the photographer's skill that contributed to the picture's greatness.

This summer in Maine, however, I was knocked out by a picture that seemed utterly mundane, was devoid of any action, and in the long pull of events was not especially significant. Yet everything about the picture held me and I couldn't fathom why.

It's a wire service picture of a pitching change, made at Yankee Stadium last August by AP photographer Mark Lennihan. After seven strong innings, Roger Clemens is shown about to leave the mound for the showers as manager Joe Torre pats The Rocket on the back and as catcher Jorge Posada and shortstop Derek Jeter look on. Ordinarily this image would be a throwaway. Yet, as you see, the Bangor Daily News gave the shot huge play, indicating that something about the picture caught the sports editor's eye as well.

What was it? I think finally I know.

What you see here is a textbook example of how photography can capture the decisive moment – as well as how the happy accident of optics, composition and Lennihan's skill as a shooter–gives this AP sports picture an artistic connection with, of all things, old master paintings of the Renaissance.

See how perfectly the image is framed [though in fact, Lennihan's shot probably was wider, having been shot in 35mm. Credit the Bangor Daily News for a great crop.]

Then see how each face in the picture tells a distinct story centering on Torre's great gentle mug and his hand about to clap his pitcher on the back for a job well done. The manager's look of almost fatherly concern is caught at just the right moment and in precisely the right attitude in relation to the central figure, Clemens. Clemens' own face is in shadow, partially obscured by the bill of his cap. The effect reinforces the disappointment any player (especially one as competitive as Clemens) feels when he is pulled from a game. The attitude of Clemens' body about to descend the pitcher's mound also creates a perfect visual tension. All the elements work. There is nothing wasted, nothing distracting – due in part to the fact that Lennihan was shooting with a big-gun telephoto that blurred out the background, much as Old Masters used shadow and light to highlight what was important in their paintings.

Yet for me it is Posada and Jeter who make the picture complete, as well as tie the image to an earlier century.

I thumbed through a few books of classical paintings and quickly found one that triggered a shock of recognition. In Raphael's portrait of Pope Leo X, made in the 16th century, see how the relationship among the subjects mirrors that of the ballplayers. How both Jeter's and Posada's faraway stares mimic the look of at least one of the Pope's assistants.

It helps too, that of the four people shown in the photograph, Clemens' doughy face is the least visually interesting, and the one that's least visible. Torre, Jeter and Posada each have striking faces, each of which could have appeared in Medieval or Renaissance paintings.

Is there anything profound in all of this? Of course not. But it is interesting to note that the rules of good composition, gesture and lighting can create a fascinating image just as easily on the baseball diamond as they did in Raphael's studio so many centuries past.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

© Frank Van Riper
Something grabbed me in AP photographer Mark Lennihan's picture last summer of Yankee pitching ace Roger Clemens about to leave the mound after another strong outing. But I couldn't figure out what it was. Finally I found my answer–in the Renaissance.

© Frank Van Riper
Granted, it is a stretch to compare a painting by the Italian master Raphael with a photograph made nearly 500 years later during a Yankee game. But you tell me if there are not marked similarities in composition and gesture between Mark Lennihan's photograph and this detail from a portrait of Pope Leo X, made in 1518-19.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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