For the past thirty years, the photographer Hiroshi Watanabe has split his time between Tokyo and Los Angeles. I met him at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park when he reported for his first day of work on the Bull City Summer project. He’s a compact man who moves carefully but fluidly; at age sixty-two, he resembles a boxing trainer or a retired gymnast. On meeting, he said to me, “I have a question—why did you invite me? I don’t follow baseball and I’ve never photographed it.” He already knew the answer—I think he wanted to find out if I did.
A few days later, during one of that week’s many rain delays, Hiroshi wandered into the dark, narrow room inside the left-field wall, behind the manually operated scoreboard on the thirty-foot Blue Monster. In this barnlike storage space, placard numerals are lifted and installed in the appropriate slots, facing outward into the stadium, to indicate runs, hits, and errors during games. Here’s how Hiroshi described what he found there:
I saw all these panels with numbers on them. I realized that the number zero had a certain translucent quality the other numbers didn’t have. The paint on the zero has been faded by more exposure to sunlight. This fading has made beautiful patterns—maplike, veinlike cracks. The passage of time offers different textures on different materials. In the scoreboard numbers, it’s just faded paint. Only zero shows the passing of time I’m looking for.
In July, Chicago-based photographer Kate Joyce returned to Durham Bulls Athletic Park for her fifth week of work. She normally arrives at the stadium around 3 P.M. for batting practice and bullpen sessions. This is when the players are most accessible. Her nights end between 11 P.M. and midnight, when the players are long gone and the stadium cleanup crew is shoveling hot-dog wrappers and beer cups and half-eaten, wet pillows of cotton candy into trash containers.
When Kate walked onto the field that afternoon—her lean, strong figure supporting her ever-present backpack of gear—a Bulls pitcher sneered, with only a hint of jest, “Don’t you have enough pictures by now?” She considered responding, Have you practiced your change-up enough? But she simply smiled and said no.
To date, she has accumulated around twenty-five thousand exposures for Bull City Summer, only two hundred of which she considers valid for the project, which is about a hundred and eighty more than we need from her. Our book, for the publisher Daylight, goes to press at the end of October; our exhibition opens at the North Carolina Museum of Art in late February. Many decisions have to be made soon. If this project were a pitcher, it would be a closer, not a starter. A tremendous amount of preparation goes into a burst of completion. For every ten or fifteen pitches Mariano Rivera throws in a game, how many has he thrown in the bullpen, in practice, or in undocumented games, over his lifetime? Hundreds of thousands? Millions?
When Kate was growing up in Santa Fe, her mother was a modern dancer and her father a sculptor and blacksmith. She spent countless hours in studios while her mother rehearsed and her father crafted raw materials into form. In the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, she’s captivated by the practice sessions, by the repetition, by what outsiders might see as the rote boredom but which is actually intrinsic to the refinement of craft.
I’m drawn to the routine trauma and grace wound into every swing during batting practice. Practice usually takes place during the hottest part of the day, so perspiration mottles the batters’ gray T-shirts and creates a drape over their musculature. The torso is emphasized, not the arms. Their bodies resemble the sculptures found in Western art museums: much surviving classical Greek and Roman sculpture is missing the most vulnerable parts of the carving—hands, arms, head, which have been lost over time—leaving only the torso, waist and hips. In the baseball swing, much of the strength comes from that same middle area of the body.
“The pitchers,” she continued, “are more like dancers. Their motions are choreographed, predetermined, not reactive. When they wrap around themselves after they throw the ball, they are led into a twist, a spiral. It’s like ballet. There’s a tremendous precision and an ability to repeat those movements over and over again.”
Alex Harris has lived and taught in Durham for four decades, but much of his photography has focused elsewhere, in places such as Cuba, New Mexico, Alaska, and, most recently, Mobile, Alabama, in a collaboration with biologist Edward O. Wilson. Bull City Summer offered him a rare opportunity to work ten minutes from his house and backyard studio.
Alex’s original idea was to photograph the stadium from outside its walls, using his 4×5 film camera on a tripod, capturing the stadium in relation to downtown Durham. He’s been doing that, but in the process he found something else:
One night, the first week of the season, I walked out of the stadium about an hour before the game, and I was struck by the hundreds of people waiting in line for tickets or for the gates to open. Something about the way they were waiting and the way they were relating to one another interested me. I began to see it as a liminal space, where people are on the threshold of something but haven’t arrived there yet. They’re waiting. And while they’re waiting, they are neither the people they were at home nor the people they’re going to be when they get where they’re going.
I was most drawn to the people who sought one another out as lovers or as parents and children, who, in this public space, almost couldn’t help touching one another, embracing. This liminal space made them less guarded than perhaps they would be if they were in their own homes, going about their daily routines, or even inside the stadium.
Photographers have stronger arms and hands than writers; they’d surely beat them in arm wrestling. In Ivan Weiss’s video, below, you can see Alec Soth lugging his enormous 8×10 view camera around Durham Bulls Athletic Park. It’s not unusual to see Kate Joyce hold her heavy Canon 5D Mark II camera to her face for ten minutes without dropping it, the wait for a picture a bicep curl. I once saw another Bull City Summer photographer, Frank Hunter, who is in his sixties and resembles Tom Lasorda, drive a golf ball three hundred and fifty yards. In his late fifties, W. Eugene Smith had the worn-out organs of an alcoholic and amphetamine addict, yet his arms and hands were those of a young automobile mechanic or farmer: muscular and sinewy, built to last—like a baseball lifer.
The idea behind Bull City Summer was to hire artists we trust and let them work within the space of the park without assignments. From the beginning there has been a tension between art and journalism. We’ve hired no sports photographers with telephoto lenses to document action on the field; we’ve relied on writer Adam Sobsey for game reporting. He’s covered the Bulls for five years and he writes for one of the top baseball Web sites, but he’s no traditional sports journalist, either. His background is in playwriting and fiction.
Eugene Smith felt that art and journalism were the same things. In the margins of a 1957 edition of a book by the sculptor Rodin called On Art and Artists, beside a long, passionate paragraph about truth in sculpture, Smith jotted, “This is the epitome of journalism.” No wonder he had trouble with editors.
Alec Soth makes no claims of journalism. In the video interview, he says of his subjects, “I always feel like I’m photographing not only them but I’m photographing the space between myself and them. I’m photographing a relationship but also a feeling of space.” The enigma of photography comes partly from that space.
The Durham Bulls’ season is now more than four-fifths done, our documentary experiment nearing completion.
Sam Stephenson is the director of Bull City Summer. He is also at work on a biography of W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His 2009 book, The Jazz Loft Project, won an ASCAP Deems Taylor award.