On view as part of the New York Public Library’s recent exhibition “Play Things”—on prints and photographs that deal in some way with games and recreation—was a series of nine baseball cards made in 1975 by artist Mike Mandel. Originally packaged with sticks of Topps gum, the cards feature some heavy hitters at bat, pitching, and fielding: Joel Meyerowitz (2), who prefers Kodachrome film; Aaron Siskind (66), whose favorite developer is Mircodol-X; and Betty Hahn (54), who likes to shoot with a Nikon. Oh, didn’t I mention—they’re photographer trading cards.
Mandel made them (there are 134 in all) in order to satirize, and frustrate, the commercial art market: the only way to collect all the cards is by making trades. Mandel’s link between photography and baseball is apt for another reason: baseball, a famously uneventful sport, is a game in which players and fans spend a lot of time observing—each other, the stands, the field, the sky—and what is photography if not the art of observing?
My appreciation of this visual aspect of baseball is fairly new. It was exactly a year ago that Sam Stephenson wrote to ask whether we might collaborate on a series of blog posts documenting the 2013 season at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Initially, I demurred. I’ve never had much interest in baseball, unless you count a short-lived crush on Chuck Knoblauch in the early aughts. But Sam also promised images by a roster of photographers, and I was won over.
Bull City Summer ran on this site for six months and reported not only on the team’s players and manager but, more significantly, on the field, the fans, and the idiosyncratic atmosphere of minor-league baseball. When Adam Sobsey introduced the series last April, he wrote that “to the unpracticed eye, the mostly static conditions on the field can seem slack or desultory, but in fact the opposite is true: the game conceals in its apparent inactivity (even woolgathering) maximum tension, precision, aspiration, tactics, worry, and grudge.” The action is in the details, and Sobsey and other writers from the series—Sam, Michael Croley, David Henry, and Howard Craft—spent the summer digging into the rote boredom and finding life within the long stretches of empty innings.
But what of the photographs? What do pictures of minor-league woolgathering look like? In many ways, they don’t look much like baseball—or at least not the baseball we’re using to seeing in still images. There are no shots of players running bases, of pitches just as the ball has left the mound, or of the crack of bats. The moments captured here are small and transitory but nonetheless make up a season at the Durham Bulls ballpark.
Alex Soth looked to the green wilds of the stadium, where solitary outfielders hold their positions and wait; Frank Hunter looked to the skies over the field, where the stadium lights met gathering thunderheads. Leah Sobsey studied individuals by composing formal tintype portraits of Bulls staff. For Kate Joyce, the details of a game were often literal: the wrung torsos of players in batting practice, a pitcher’s fingers lightly positioned on the ball, the myriad bubblegum-wrapper darts tossed by players into the grass. But in the minors, the accounting of a game doesn’t only take place in the space of the field but also among the social community in the stands: the fans and workers who provide a different kind of theater during the slow procession of innings. So we have Hunter’s shot of fans shielding their eyes from the late afternoon sun, Alex Harris’s portraits of attendees as they enter the stadium and Sobsey’s as they mill on the concourse, Soth’s enigmatic concessions workers, and Joyce’s playful typology of cups containing melted slushies and watered-down cokes.
Kate Joyce’s typologies are some of my favorite photographs. She took some ninety thousand pictures over roughly a thousand hours in preparing for and realizing the BCS project. But these grouped photographs—the lawn darts, the abandoned concessions, the white smudges made by balls hitting the Blue Monster in left field—are the clearest indication that she, like me, was trying to make sense of a game that is as much about ritual as it is about rules. These accumulations make up a pattern, a vocabulary, through which Joyce can begin to understand the larger language.
On view this spring and summer, in Raleigh, North Carolina, are two exhibitions of photography and video work from the Bull City Summer project, by ten artists—Kate Joyce, Alec Soth, Frank Hunter, Leah Sobsey, Hank Willis Thomas, Hiroshi Watanabe, Alex Harris, Elizabeth Matheson, Ivan Weiss, and Jeff Whetstone. You can work on your own art of observation with the slide show of selected images below. And remember that baseball, to quote Leonard Zelig, “doesn’t have to mean anything, it’s just beautiful to watch.”
“Bull City Summer” is on view at the North Carolina Museum of Art, in Raleigh, through August 31. Another exhibition, at the Contemporary Art Museum–Raleigh, opens May 15. The book Bull City Summer: A Season at the Ballpark will be published by Daylight Books in April.