Section: Arts

Ozerkevich shares work on early French sports photography

Ozerkevich shares work on early French sports photography

The Atletas (year unknown). The arrows, added by Ozerkevich, indicate places that have been edited. | COURTESY OF OZERKEVICH

When you edit a photo to make your body look different or certain features more prominent, you follow a tradition of retouching photos that may be at least 140 years old, according to Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History Rachel Ozerkevich. On Feb. 15, Ozerkevich shared her research on early publicized photography during a presentation titled “Aesthetes and Athletes: Media Debates and French Sports Images, 1881-1917.” Ozerkevich explained that this 36-year period in France saw a massive rise in popular press and marked the beginnings of sports publications printing photography in their pages.

The use of handwork — the editing of images through drawing, cutting or otherwise altering the original physical image — truly captured her attention in the aesthetics of French sports imagery. Often this handwork was used to make photos resemble illustrations more palatable to audiences unfamiliar with photography. Ozerkevich explained that “our biases and beliefs about ideal bodies, beauty and national belonging owe a lot to sports imagery. We know how to read all the images we see in the sports media because the earliest sports-image makers relied on artistic conventions.” Before showing a small sampling of these images, Ozerkevich warned the audience that they might look different from our modern conception of photography. “We have art directors, photographers and editors literally playing with photographs. They’re playing with lines, shapes, layouts and the interplay between text and image,” she said. Indeed, each of Ozerkevich’s example images had been directly drawn on to create the desired effects.

Ozerkevich is currently developing her research into a book, and each chapter of her project focuses on different examples of retouched images and explores the techniques used to manipulate them. A photograph from the 1900 Paris Olympic Games showed a moment from the diving competition on the Seine where one of the figures had been entirely drawn into the image. “Retouching involved everything from highlighting important areas to blurring out or minimizing extra confusing details, to cropping or cutting out areas that might detract from a central narrative,” Ozerkevich explained. She also emphasized the importance of inspecting these photographs physically because digital copies can lose the texture and signs of alterations.

As she examined the societal impact of editing the body, she focused on female weightlifters and the ways that their photographs were retouched to maintain gendered stereotypes about beauty ideals and proportions in women. Speaking about a posed photo of a family of female weightlifters who referred to themselves as the Atletas, Ozerkevich said, “These images of the women show dramatic evidence of having been drawn on. There are pen and scratch marks around the women’s waists, busts, chins and arms, which literally slimmed their bodies.” The photographer Edmond Desbonnet published the photo in a magazine called La Culture Physique. Ozerkevich added that “[the Atletas] were too fit. They were too muscular and thereby too far removed from mainstream ideals of female beauty…much of Desbonnet’s drawing, then, has to do with making their bodies conform a little bit more to these widely accepted beauty ideals.” This example illustrates how long the press has been distorting women’s bodies to present an ideal that has long been shaping popular perceptions of beauty standards.

Ozerkevich’s last example was, in many ways, the most troubling. It was a 1905 picture of a woman dressed in traditional North American indigenous clothing, showing off her costume and form. Ozerkevich revealed that the woman who performed under the name Osceola was a white European performer who “appropriated generic Indigenous regalia and narratives in her complex self-fashioning.” She explained that through this cultural appropriation, “Osceola was engaging with discourses about indigenous otherness, exoticism and eroticism, and… capitalizing on popular fears about women’s physical and intellectual liberation.” Ozerkevich is in the process of searching for additional information about Osceola, but this example demonstrates the critical role that race and culture play in our understanding of sports imagery and history.

In a 45-minute presentation and brief Q&A session, Ozerkevich managed to reveal a condensed history of altering photography as well as establish the clear and necessary connection between sports photography, popular culture, body image and art history. Her upcoming articles and book are sure to leave readers more aware and considerate of the images they encounter daily and the historical traditions that inspire them.

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