In the Library of Congress’ News in the 1910s Flickr set, there are some really amazing photographs of people playing tennis, and as I look at them, I find myself drawn to two curious features of the images: the way in which motion is captured by the cameras in use at the time and the appearance of that motion itself.
Sports photography as I am used to encountering it now is all about a sort of bright, hard reality. Contemporary cameras often capture fast, impossible movement so clearly that you could very nearly hear the smack of the racket head hitting the ball, or feel the heat and sweat of the player. In contemporary sporting clothes (which tend to reveal rather a lot of the body, particularly for women), skin shines over muscle in such images, and hair flies wild, and the whole business looks just as active and difficult and loud and forceful as can be.
Contrast contemporary images of tennis with these two elegant shots from the 1910s, and see if you notice anything of interest:
Both of the players (a Mr. O. Kreutzer and a Ms. Elizabeth Moore) are working hard — they are captured in full play, leaping, running, hitting. Yet they somehow look effortlessly cool in their formal tennis costumes. They are dancing in cool, light white, instead of glistening and more-or-less bare. Judging by their activity, it’s obvious that they must be sweating and grunting and doing all of the other things that athletes in full swing do, but you’d never know it from the photographs. Ms. Moore simply floats in the frame, looking for all the world as if she’d simply levitated up to the ball instead of making what must have been a pretty impressive leap — she looks as if she could just trot off to tea afterward, clean and white and elegant. Her outfit, in particular, must be miserably hot to play in — long skirts and hose in summer are not a recipe for comfort in hot weather or hard activity. Yet, in black and white, you’d never know it. The costume lends itself to the illusion of effortlessness. Mr. Kreutzer, dancing around the ball, hardly seems to be trying — and the break of his trouser cuff above his instep is calculated and tailored and striking.
Obviously some of the cool ease of this appearance is class-related — tennis, in this context, was not the sport of the lower classes. Effortless elegance is the hallmark of the moneyed folk, whose job it is to be expensively tailored and flawless without looking as if money and effort had gone into it. Even a tennis costume, for these people, must be gracefully presented and stylishly assembled. When Ms. Moore rolled up her sleeves (as she obviously did), the sleeves thus rolled were perfectly done. Care with appearance was a part of the athletic task — particularly if it could be made to appear as if no excessive care were taken.
This studied effortlessness makes the following image (of a Mr. Neim) all the more striking because it apparently represents a failure of a kind:
His left sleeve has fallen loose, unrolled and unfastened. It is the only obvious evidence of the strain of his effort in play — otherwise, he is another cool, white-garbed dancer with a racket. The fallen sleeve is the only hint of the genuinely hard work going on in such a picture.