Graydon Gordian has been reading a lot of photo criticism and theory lately, so he thought it’d be interesting to break down noteworthy NBA photos from time to time. We agree. It’s called NBA Photography 101.
In some very basic sense, this photograph is a remarkable achievement, both technologically and artistically. Except for LeBron James’ right hand, which is slightly out of focus, the camera has managed to capture a highly dynamic, split-second occurrence with the clarity of a posed photograph. That may seem unremarkable, but plenty of people can remember a day when such a physically dynamic moment could not be captured so crisply.
It’s also a well-framed photo given photographer Ezra Shaw’s constraints. His subjects are all in nearly constant motion, yet he manages to place both James and David Lee in a position where the eye naturally moves back and forth between the two.
Honestly the photo could be largely blurry and poorly framed, but if it managed to cleanly record the facial expressions of James and Lee, it’d be worth saving. Physically, their faces are surprisingly similar — mouths open, jaws tight, eyebrows crinkled. But context suggests their respective reactions to what has just occurred are rather different: James has an air of unbridled enthusiasm mixed with slightly self-conscious pomposity; Lee betrays the particular kind of astonishment we feel when caught off guard by something we should have anticipated. There’s also a hint of frustration in his eyes.
If their facial expressions are the most remarkable element of the photo — and they are — it’s worth asking whether or not we should even really credit the photographer. Were this a photo shoot, one might give the photographer credit for his or her editorial direction. (Picture Annie Leibovitz asking James to “look fierce.”) And it’s not like that distinct combination of patience and intuition with which the most brilliant photographers are blessed led Shaw to stumble upon James in a private moment of high emotion as no NBA player may be more uninterruptedly conscious of the fact that he’s being observed than LeBron James.
It’s not even certain that there is a “photographer” in the sense we understand it. Although distinct in some pretty concrete ways, this photo brings to mind what is arguably the best sports photo of last year, in which Dwyane Wade, his arms held outward, confidently and calmly strides towards the edge of the frame while James prepares to slam down the alley-oop Wade has served up for him. Yet there was no eye peering through the other end of that lens: As the photographer, Morry Gash, later admitted, the photo was taken with a camera that lay at his feet and fired automatically when he took shots with the one in his hands.
Could the backstory of this photo be similar? It looks as if it was taken from a slightly higher point, but it’s hard to be certain. Even if it was taken with a handheld camera, given how many photos get taken at every game, I wonder if the photographer even remembers this moment.
One interesting quality this photograph possesses is that it’s arguably more compelling than the video of the play, which begins around the 35 second mark. That’s not to say the play isn’t impressive. When James crosses halfcourt with the ball, there are four Warriors between him and the basket. When he gets to the 3-point line, there are still three. You’ve seen the photo so you can tell how many there are when he finally gets to the rim. While Golden State might not exactly be known for its transition defense, it’s the casual manner in which James sprints past several defenders and finishes unchallenged that makes him the game’s most physically astonishing player.
Given the nature of video — the fact that it actually captures movement, rather than suggesting it; the fact that it provides a backstory to the moment of the photograph rather than merely alluding to one — it seems odd that the photo is more compelling. But the play, while an excellent example of James’ transcendent physical talent, is in another sense wholly unremarkable. James makes similar plays multiple times a game. Plenty of those plays don’t even make the highlight reel.
If anything, the frequency of such plays actually detracts from the photograph slightly. Photos of James, hanging in mid-air post-dunk, looking wide-eyed and mean, have almost become a genre of NBA photo in their own right. They’re nearly as common as the silhouetted shot of the anguished and disbelieving coach or the awkward, yet oddly revealing robo-shots taken from behind the backboard.
But despite how many times we’ve seen photos so perilously close to this one that they threaten to rob it of its charisma, James’ face — that vehicle for his ever-present sense of showmanship, that martial countenance — draws you back in.