I’ve always held a fascination with the ESPN Body Issue since it first emerged in 2009. ESPN’s response to the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition also features semi-nude and nude photography, but unlike SI, ESPN relies on athletes instead of models to serve as the subjects. The imagery tends to be less formulaic, and like Howard Schatz’s Athlete, the body morphologies reject conventional stereotypes of beauty. These are, after all, bodies built for functional strength, not magazine covers. Massive legs and thick cores of both male and female athletes are a good reminder of the type of conditioning it takes to be a top-level athlete.
There is a look to the SI images that has little to do with a given photographer’s style. Emmanuelle Hauguel’s typical imagery often uses strobe, but in a naturalistic way that this particular image of Wozniacki lacks. The heavy handedness of the retouching (e.g. look at the blueness of the ocean, and the weird banding of color at the horizon) only accentuates the almost comical pinup style that defines the SI genre.
This image of Wozniacki spraying sunscreen with the backlighting nearly made me spit up my drink. SI tries to make athletes look like swimsuit models, rather than athletes.
Contrast these to some of Hauguel’s more typical imagery, and you begin to see how limiting the SI formula is from a creative standpoint.
There are certainly exceptions, but SI eschews environmental portraiture – instead relying on tight shots with shallow depth-of-field that despite their exotic locations, could be shot anywhere.
Dewey Nicks took to the studio to shoot Wozniacki in motion.
This image has no keylight! A CTO gel on camera left and a blue gel on camera right creates a dramatic lighting setup that is enhanced by the dust and the leap. Notice that the lights are behind the subject facing towards the camera suggesting that flags were used to prevent any flare on the lens.
The lack of blur in the hands and feet suggest that either high speed sync or a short flash duration was used rather than relying on the 1/160th or 1/200th flash sync that is common on most digital cameras nowadays. Most of the BTS imagery showed photographers using DSLRs, so I’m assuming faster sync speeds with medium format leaf shutters was not the case.
Here’s one of the covers:
Verdict: Nicks. This certainly isn’t to impugn Hauguel’s skill as a photographer because I like her portfolio. Creatively speaking however, the Swimsuit Issue could use a visual reboot. Unfortunately, I suspect the continued strong sales of the flagship issue mean no tinkering is allowed or desired. But man, the visual style feels so boring and dated…
This isn’t to say that ESPN doesn’t rely on formulaic photography. Rim lights, colored gels, and jumping athletes strategically covering their genitals can get tiring as well, but you’re just not going to find an image like Francesco Carrozzini’s shot of surfer Maya Gabeira in SI.