August 9, 2012  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
Spectacle and Spirit: 1930s Photographs of Olympians

They don’t call it a “photo finish” for nothing! There is something energizing about the most tightly contested races, something captivating in the physical strength and strain of athletes competing at the limits of their ability. I’ll admit I’ve caught Olympics fever. I love the determination, the intensity, and the dreams of athletes, many of whom have been training their entire lives and for whom the Olympics are the pinnacle of their sporting careers. Like most, I’ve never attended the Olympic Games; instead I experience the events through the equally intense efforts of the sports photographers who capture each performance, race, and finish.

The Museum’s collection includes a small group of photographs, taken leading up to and during the 1936 Olympics, that represent a pivotal moment in the history of sports photography.

Leni Riefenstahl. Kaarlo Toivonen, Finland, Bronze medal. 1936. Gelatin silver print, 10 7/8 x 8 11/16″ (27.6 x 22 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Thomas Walther. © 2012 Leni Riefenstahl Estate

In 1936, the Games of the XI Olympiad were held in Berlin under the auspices of the Nazi regime and were the first to be internationally televised. Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, understood the games’ power to promote the Nazi political agenda on the world stage. He commissioned the young photographer and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to film and photograph the Olympics, where she would pioneer techniques used by sports photographers to this day.

Riefenstahl worked with a crew of 45 cameramen to ensure that every event was covered, and from multiple angles. Finnish athlete Kaarlo Kalervo Toivonen won the bronze medal in men’s javelin, and Riefenstahl’s team captured his throw with both film cameras alongside the track and still photos, including the one shown here. Images taken from cameras perched atop news vans would be passed down and developed as the vehicle sped to the news station, leading to a nearly instantaneous broadcast of events.

However, Riefenstahl was also planning for Olympia, her epic propaganda film on the Berlin Games, and was proud that her pictures were not limited to the strict confines of documentary. When she felt she had missed an angle or had been prevented from getting close enough during the official competition, she was known to invade the Olympic Village early in the morning, rousing medal-winning athletes—Toiwonen among them—from their sleep to re-enact their events for her camera crew.

Leni Riefenstahl. Nocturnal Start of Decathlon 1,500m Race. August 1936. Gelatin silver print, 9 5/16 x 11 3/4″ (23.7 x 29.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Thomas Walther Collection. Purchase. © 2012 Leni Riefenstahl Estate

To capture the Nocturnal Start of Decathalon, 1,500m race, Riefenstahl convinced the gold medalist, American runner Glenn Morris, to return from Stockholm to reshoot the race with his fellow American, silver medalist Robert Clark. The reshoot allowed her to light the runners to the benefit of the photograph, to move close in on the track. Ultimately, it also ensured that her best shots were of the German athletes or the medal winners.

Leni Riefenstahl. Untitled (Swimmers at the Olympic Games in Berlin, 1936). 1936. Gelatin silver print, 9 3/16 x 11 5/8″ (23.4 x 29.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Thomas Walther Collection. Purchase. © 2012 Leni Riefenstahl Estate

These swimmers are a masterful example of Riefenstahl’s directorial zeal. Since synchronized swimming did not become an official Olympic sport until the Los Angeles games in 1984, this graphic composition of swimmers linked head to toe and kicking in a dynamic diagonal across the picture was certainly staged specifically for the camera. Equally important as her choreography was her frequent use of elevated angles, achieved by photographing from a large, fixed-post hot-air balloon.

Leni Riefenstahl. Eight metre boats crowding at the turning point. 1936. Gelatin silver print, 8 11/16 x 11 5/16″ (22 x 28.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Thomas Walther Collection. Purchase. © 2012 Leni Riefenstahl Estate

As the eight-meter boats of the silver-medalist Norwegian team (N26), gold-medalist Italian team (I20), British team (K26), and Danish team (D1) reached the turn in the race on August 10, Riefenstahl’s cameras followed their movement from a fixed balloon tethered to a minesweeper M122, guided by the German navy. Riefenstahl’s aerial view allows her to see all the competitors at once, but also elevates the camera above the crew, transforming the race into an abstract composition of windblown sails.

John Gutmann. Class (Olympic High Diving Champion, Marjorie Gestring). 1936. Gelatin silver print, 8 3/4 x 7 1/2″ (22.2 x 19.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Thomas Walther Collection. Purchase. © 1998 Center For Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents

Geometric compositions and aerial views were characteristic of avant-garde photography in the 1930s, and diving was a sport perfectly suited to experiments with both. As divers jumped into the air, the orienting features of the landscape were eliminated, and captured in a photograph they became abstract arrangements of forms in space.

John Gutmann captured this picture of Marjorie Gestring in 1935 at a national diving competition in Oakland, California. At the 1936 Olympics, Gestring won the gold medal in springboard diving and set the record as the youngest female gold medalist at the age of 13. Gutmann changed the title of his photo to include her new status as an Olympic champion.

Aleksandr Rodchenko is among the most well known photographers of the 1930s, noted particularly for his use of oblique vertical angles. His photographs of divers were among many he took of Russian athletes. Dive (1934), Rodchenko’s photograph of the sportsman Astafiev, was included in the 1934 exhibition of Photo Art Masters and published in Sovietskoe Foto in 1935. It is possible that Riefenstahl had seen these earlier pictures, and that they influenced the measures she took to ensure ideal angles at the Berlin Games.

From left: Aleksandr Rodchenko. Dive. 1934. Gelatin silver print, 11 11/16 x 9 1/4″ (29.7 x 23.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Thomas Walther Collection. Purchase; Aleksandr Rodchenko. Dive. 1935. Gelatin silver print, 11 11/16 x 9 3/8″ (29.7 x 23.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Thomas Walther Collection. Purchase

Reifenstahl’s career is marred by her role as part of the propaganda machine of the Nazi party. (And, of course, the 1936 Olympic Games are most often remembered for the world record–setting performances of African American runner Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals while spectacularly disproving Hitler’s theory of Aryan superiority.) One cannot consider Riefenstahl’s innovations without acknowledging the violent political apparatus that supported them. Nevertheless, through her passionate determination to take the best possible photograph of each event, she imagined new possibilities in sport photography.

Today, scuba gear, high-tech lenses, and remote shutters are de rigueur, as a recent New York Times article details. Yet, as I read it, I couldn’t help but think of the trenches Reifenstahl ordered dug alongside the track to bring her camera-eye level with pounding feet, the balloons that allowed her camera to rise above the action, and the underwater camera-cases that followed divers from the platform to the bottom of the pool as the innovative predecessors of today’s high-tech photo-finishes.