Figure Ground

Paolo Bacchini at the 2012 European Figure Skating Championships, Sheffield, UK. Photograph: Chiara Zuanni

Paolo Bacchini at the 2012 European Figure Skating Championships, Sheffield, UK. Photograph: Chiara Zuanni

Chiara Zuanni is an archaeologist and figure skating enthusiast based in Manchester. She has covered and photographed skating events for the Italian-language website ArtOnIce and for her own blog Dreaming on Ice. Figure skating occupies an intriguingly contested space between art and sport, or perhaps between what Roger Caillois would have termed ‘agôn’ and ‘mimicry’. As with all sports, these categories become increasingly muddled in the photographic snapshot taken of the event. Here, the O.E. asked Chiara – as fan, photographer, human and deep thinker in all things visual – what she sees in these particular snapshots.

What do you see?

Our visual system focuses only on certain aspects of an image. A famous experiment on this selective visual attention is presented in this video:

So, did you see the gorilla? Then, let’s move on to figure skating.

While watching a figure skating video, my frame of vision will affect what I see: as an adoring fan, I will look for my favourite skater creating masterpieces on ice; as a fan of the sport, I will look at the technique and judge the execution of each element; as a ‘normal’ person, I will perhaps have a vague idea of what’s going on and I will just look at the whole picture; and so on. We zoom in and out to observe different aspects of the same performance. Moreover, fans make tribute videos or spoofs, editing official videos of competition or interviews. Other videos may be used to demonstrate the correct technique of a specific element. The life of a figure skating video  is not finished after its content has been gleaned; it can be kept and re-used for different purposes.

Until now I have spoken only of videos. Actually, it seems more easy to emphasise these concept when referring to videos: just go on Youtube, search for ‘figure skating’ and have a look at the results and the comments. All these ways of looking and all these types of video montages will be quite easily spotted.

But, can we say the same of photos? Theoretically, yes.

An actual example? See the recent fuss surrounding the cover of the Globe and Mail, ostensibly picturing the youthful promise of 17 year-old Canadian skater Kaetlyn Osmond.

Front page of 'Globe & Mail', Monday March 18, 2013, with image of Kaetlyn Osmond.

Front page of ‘Globe & Mail’, Monday March 18, 2013, with image of Kaetlyn Osmond.

As the skater herself commented on Twitter, the photo ‘could have been better, it also could have been worse’. In the sport, being able to perform such a high kick is undoubtedly a good thing; moreover, given the costumes of the skaters, skirts often ride up and skaters are used to this. Nonetheless, this photo managed to produce a full-on controversy, especially among non-practitioners who noticed the scandalous aspect first and foremost.

Let’s take another image: one of current Olympic and World Champion Yuna Kim, a superstar in the sport. She has a huge fan base, and is one of the most famous media personalities in South Korea. Below is a photo taken during her 2012/13 free program “Les Miserables”.

Yuna Kim. Image: {QUEEN YUNA} (flickr)

Yuna Kim. Image: {QUEEN YUNA} (flickr)

As an amateur photographer, I admire the perfect timing of the photo: you have to get this right, then lights (a critical point when shooting skating photos), focus and zoom need to be all correct. To catch a spin in the right moment is one of the most difficult things: a few milliseconds after and the photographer will have caught her back or front, while the best point of view for a Biellmann spin (where the skater catches her foot) is from the side. However, I may also say that a better photo could have been taken a few seconds later. In this photo Kim has not completed the position: a few seconds later she would have brought the foot closer to her head, and then eventually raised it upon her head.

As a fan of Yuna Kim, I will tend emphasise the perfection of her movements and how graceful she looks; as a fan of figure skating, I will notice how she grasps her foot, how she bends her back, how the head follows the movement, and the position of her free arm. And I will think how beautiful is this sport. As an athlete, I will try to think through how what she does is different to me, how can I improve my position, how can I bend my back more. And then, I will think over how to insert a layback spin into my program, with which variations, how to maximise the points I could gain by executing this element, and how it will affect the whole program. Probably, as a young athlete I will think that I want to become like her. As a journalist, I will prepare an article titled something like “The Queen is back” and comment on her flawless performance, and how she won the competition, leaving no space to her adversaries. As a non-fan, perhaps I will just think “another skating photo! Nice!”, and move on to more important things.

But after seeing, admiring, commenting on the image…do the life of fan communities end here? In many cases, yes, apparently. Though it should be remembered that this image will anyway be referred to again and again in the future, when comments will be made on who has the best layback spin, how good Kim’s 2012 program was, and so on.

However, the image can also be appropriated and become source of inspiration for arts works, like it has happened in this case (ok, it’s not based on that specific image, but this artwork is definitely inspired by the Biellmanb in this program).

Fan image of Yuna Kim, tumblr

Fan image of Yuna Kim, tumblr

Maybe, in a few weeks, this image will also be added to more complex fan art works, like this one:

Fan image of Yuna Kim, tumblr

Fan image of Yuna Kim, tumblr

In other words, that simple photo can have many different meanings and become a source of inspiration for other works.

At the same time, fan communities are also bound by a shared interest and develop their own languages. If I am chatting on a fan forum, I can recall skaters through nicknames. I can speak of the battle of the Brians, and it will be obvious to everyone that I am speaking of the 1988 Olympics, where Brian Boitano and Brian Orser won gold and silver respectively. Actually, this ‘battle’ has entered also popular culture, thanks to a song from South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.

For the record, when Brian Boitano was given his own TV show on Food Network, he called it What Would Brian Boitano Make?

To return to figure skating photos and conclude this post, I have until now argued that one simple photo can be read in many different ways, and its life will continue within fan communities, inspiring new works or jokes.

Last but not least, I want to consider the photographer point of view: while taking a photos, what’s the photographer looking for? How does the technique change in order to achieve certain effects?

In championships, there is a uniform light, so the central point will surely be the skater. In this case, the technical aspect tend to prevail: we are interested in how this skater managed a certain placement rather than an another, how did he or she perform. Therefore also the photo will try to highlight the main elements: jumps, steps, spins. After a bit of practice (and even more when we know the program and the skater), it is easy to spot when an element is coming, and at this point we can choose to take a photo of the beginning of a jump, with the aim to show all the power in taking off and starting the rotation. Though, I usually prefer the landing phase, when the skater has to show the best control of the movements, while stopping the rotation and absorbing contact with the ice. In the spin and the steps, a good photographer will look for the original position, and for the best pose.

In less competitive shows, the lights play their part in highlighting the performance. Skaters are usually more relaxed, performing less technical, but more impactful programs. Therefore, here the photographer has more choices: we can treat shows as competitions and emphasise the technical gestures; we can also try to capture the play of shadows between the skater and the lights; we can focus on the emotional aspect and capture the expressions of the skaters. Close-ups are often more intense there, due to the increased freedom of the skaters in their performances  and the particular lighting.

In this instant then, the photographer can take a photo more aimed to the technician, to the adoring fan, or to the general public. The ability to shift between all these frames of vision is the mindset that we aim for while taking photos. After all, as an amateur photographer of figure skating, I am myself the first in a long chain of looking for all these different aspects.

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