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The Road To Grace is Paved in Awkward

Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - 01:00 PM

This week? A bit of joy for your post-Olympics, late summer lull.

I don’t know if you’re like me but the images that endure after each Summer Olympics—long after the runners, bikers, and tennis players have squeaked away—are the ones of flight. A diver mid-flip. A gymnast soaring out toward the high bar. A vaulter whipping high into the air.

I think these little human boomerangs are the ones that stick in the memory simply because they are the most difficult to comprehend. While I may be deluded enough to think (with my feet up, popcorn bowl on lap) that if I just trained hard enough, if I just got up at 5AM enough, I might be able to run or bike alongside the Olympians on the screen before me (crunch, crunch, oh yeah, you totally could), even my most delusional self shuts up at the appearance of the gymnasts and divers. I know it could never be so.

Because these bodies spinning through the air are, for that instant, something Other. They seem untethered by gravity and fear, and for just that moment, allowed to become a thing of pure Grace. How do they get into that state? I have no idea. My best guess is that they draw upon some secret source (is it Fearlessness? is it Faith?) that enables this most brief but significant change of state. I don’t know what it is, but I know it is rare.

Enter Ezra Shaw. Sports Photographer.

Ezra has been a Staff Photographer with Getty Images for over a decade. With an event like diving, he knows the job is to capture the full dive. A wide shot. To provide some record of a body in this state of grace, before it—splash—becomes human again.

But one overcast day in July, standing on a pool deck in Shanghai, Ezra got an idea. He was snapping away at the preliminary rounds of men’s 3m diving (the springy diving board one) at the 2011 FINA World Championships... and he thought, what if instead of trying to capture the full wingspan of flight, he zoomed in?

He got out his hulking 800mm telephoto lens.

He took one shot. Nothing.

A second shot. Nothing.

And then he got something:

Jonathan Joernfalk of Sweden. Courtesy of Getty Images / Ezra Shaw.

This photo (which was not the first he got, but one of the best) is just the tip of the iceberg of what Ezra was able to capture that day. The images get so much better, each one more impossibly bizarre than the last. The sheer cartoonish range of human exertion he was able to document is, well... sidesplitting.

Here is a collection of the 18 most excruciating ones.

And here are a few more on Ezra's site.

This collection of photos was, to me, a revelation. Yes, they were hilarious. But as I scrolled through picture after picture, I felt something else dawning: They are human too. Look how weird and clumsy and unpretty they are! The way you fight gravity is not through achieving some temporary state of pure elegance, but is any goshdarn way you can. You can stave off gravity by stabbing at it with your tongue, by puffing your cheeks at it, furrowing your eyebrows, straining your neck. The road to Grace, as these photos so irrefutably prove, is paved in Awkward.

Ezra Shaw agrees. He thinks the success of these photos (they went viral last year), goes beyond seeing funny faces. “There’s something in seeing the such intense strain exposed, that is appealing to us.”

That seems to be precisely it. That their scrappiness is a kind of equalizer. Not only does it bring the divers down to our level -- weighted and ungainly on the pool deck -- but it also invites us to fly among them. In each pointed tongue and flapping lip is a high five. Man, this is all we got. Neck clench. Lip chew. The only way we weighted creatures have to achieve grace.

And maybe that’s why these photos elicit such a reaction. It’s the thrill of seeing that human bond -- which turns out to be a gristly and spittle-covered thing -- revealed in such high definition. Or. Well. Maybe it's just ha ha look at da smooshy cheek on da fancy man.

Either way, splash on, summer luller. And move forward in any goshdarn way that you can.

A few more links:

You can see through Ezra’s photos -- static hay bales in front of hundreds of rushing wheels of the Tour de France, Chinese drummers so synchronized they look like a quilt, a tennis player so airborne it appears she’s about to embrace her own shadow -- this is not the first time he’s frozen moments of extreme exertion into visual whimsy. His website is worth a careful browse-through. You know, if you like fun.


A particularly beautiful video of Mens 3m Diving, set to Emo and put in Slow-Mo, which displays that "it looks like they're sipping up some secret source" thing I was trying to describe. Look at the quiet. The faith. The concentration.


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Comments [4]

Will Rogers from Richmond, VA

here's a great music video featuring a bunch more slo mo diving

Oct. 17 2012 09:04 AM
Kat from Finland

Brilliant article. I'm not easily impressed by the writing ability of journalists and/or bloggers, but you handle your material with such an elegant, yet simple, philosophical take I can't help but be charmed.

Sep. 11 2012 01:30 AM

Alas, perhaps more daft than tacky. I didn't know it was so! News reports on this side of the pond have been more Mitt and Isaac than anything else. But forgive an ignoramus; no negating the achievements of Paralympians was intended.

Aug. 29 2012 07:34 PM
Laura Brown from London

It's a bit tacky to talk about the "post-Olympics lull" on the day that the Paralympics starts, isn't it?

Aug. 29 2012 02:24 PM

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