In a bygone era, sports photographers didn’t have the benefit of Telephoto lenses, digital cameras or wireless transmission. But their technological limitations had under-appreciated benefits.
“Photographers had to get really close to the ballplayers,” said Fred Conrad, a former staff photographer for The New York Times. “So there’s this wonderfully personal and intimate feeling from the photographs.”
Mr. Conrad cited as an example the photos of Charles M. Conlon, who worked from 1904 through 1942, the golden era of players like the Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and others. In June, inspired by those images and the process that created them, Mr. Conrad began photographing the Rockland Boulders, a minor-league baseball team in Pomona, N.Y. Like Conlon, he worked with a vintage 4 by 5 Graflex.
“When you plop that big camera in front of somebody and they see their reflection in that big lens, something happens that’s different than digital,” Mr. Conrad said.
He attended one or two games a week for several weeks, building a rapport with the players. Although it was a challenge to depict in still images, Mr. Conrad said the players’ connection to each other — their emotional ties — were palpable.
“It doesn’t matter if they’re in the majors or the minors, they’re still the same,” Mr. Conrad said. “They share the same feelings for each other. They share the same passion for the game. So some things don’t change. That was nice to explore photographically.”
The Boulders gave Mr. Conrad unfettered access, in striking contrast to the restrictions imposed by major league teams whose public relations staff forbids candid shots. Even simple photo sessions require strict appointments, numerous reminders, and sometimes agent negotiations.
“That was also the difference during Conlon’s time,” he said. “He had access to the players. Photography was still a novelty. They didn’t mind being photographed. It was kind of a fun thing to do.”
Mr. Conrad’s work with the Boulders includes close-up portraits in the same vein as Conlon’s: action shots of sluggers at bat; the team mascot; even a locker room card game.
“The things that make baseball special now are the same things that made baseball special in Conlon’s day,” Mr. Conrad said. “There is a team, there is a camaraderie between teammates, there is this wonderful sport. There are all of these really neat things about the game that endure.”