Man Without Gravity, an exhibition of recent work by longtime photojournalist David Burnett, opens with an air of mystery: an audience seated expectantly in a ring, pushed back against their chairs while staring at a mass of bright white light. The source of their attention is obscured, overexposed, but it’s clear in any case that it’s a spectacle.
The title lends a sense of both affirmation and anticlimax: Wimbledon, London, United Kingdom, August 2012. Events at Wimbledon tend to be wreathed in a sense of decorum and restraint, but as a sport on the world stage, it can’t help but be an extravaganza, and looking at an image of people looking – the photo is all audience, no subject, shot from the perspective of that audience – brings out the inevitable drama of being a spectator.
Sports, in their defining moments of quiet individual achievement and mass public mania, serve as a compelling focus for Burnett, who for more than 50 years has shot subjects ranging from war to politics to private moments with the late reggae great Bob Marley. Man Without Gravity, on view at Anastasia Photo through September 25, gathers pictures from the Olympics (and a few Olympic-style events) from 1984 to 2014, with a mix of different perspectives and tones. About one-third of the pictures here were shot on assignment for publications including Time, ESPN, and Outside magazines. Certain images present athletes as otherworldly and alone, such as one of a ski jumper in a futuristic silver suit at the top of a ramp set to shoot him into the stratosphere. Others fix on the poetry of athletes in motion, such as a platform diver caught mid-twirl against a backdrop of a distant cityscape in Barcelona. Still others focus on the apparatus that surrounds the modern-day athletic enterprise, such as stadiums and tracks (for track & field, bicycling, bobsledding, etc.), scenes that seem as invested in wires and lights and architectural adornments as in the sports themselves. The effect suggests the presence of an eye peeled for action, and the images are suited to those who are sports aficionados as well as those who aren’t. You don’t need to be a fan to be spellbound.