We’ve all seen the iconic images of Gazza’s infamous dentist’s chair celebration, Gareth Southgate being consoled after Euro 96 penalty heartache and Mo Farah and Usain Bolt sharing a podium at London 2012, but we’re less likely to know the man responsible for capturing some of sport’s most famous scenes. In A Life Behind the Lens, however, readers are introduced to the man who, for over thirty years, has captured these memorable moments and many, many more – Richard Pelham.
In an era of the smartphone and Instagram, where every amateur snapper can fancy themselves a photographer, and every sports fan has their phone at the ready to catch their sporting hero for posterity, it is easy to forget and take for granted the value of great sports photography. A quick flick through this book, however – winner of this year’s Best Illustrated category at the Telegraph Sports Book Awards – is a frank reminder of the quality and artistry that sets the likes of Pelham apart, whilst the words that accompany the images tell the story of his journey across three decades and the context behind delivering the iconic shots.
At the start of the book, Pelham states that ‘people have pictures on walls, not words.’ It’s a simple truism, but one that is particularly borne out in the world of sport, in which images are often the hook of the back pages of the newspapers, as well as being what fans remember years, decades, even centuries on. Indeed, that old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is certainly applicable here – although the journalists may not be happy to hear it! And Pelham’s pictures are a great reminder of sports photography’s incredible dual ability to both capture an individual moment and to tell the whole story of an event. As someone heavily invested in, and a huge follower of, sport, this book certainly made me rethink the role and value of sports photography and the work of the ‘snappers’.
Pitch Publishing have done a great job in packaging and designing this book. As per the ‘coffee-table’ style, it is a weighty and larger format, which allows the photos to be given greater space of which they’re deserving. The style of the book itself is relatively simple, with a mix of black and white pages on which the photos are displayed and this creates a super-stylish look that is fitting to Pelham’s images. The black backgrounds are especially aesthetically effective, although personally I sometimes struggled with the white-on-black text, but this book is all about the images and that is rightly where the emphasis lies.
I particularly loved the pictures that were given the entire full-page, or even double-page, spreads, and would have loved to see even more of the images displayed in this way, but I enjoyed the fact that the pictures are contextualised in brief by Pelham, giving some of the insight into the context or capture of each shot. The text is brief and doesn’t offer anything too distracting or taxing to detract from the images, although sometimes I wondered if the placement of the text could have perhaps facilitated the images a little better, and on occasion I did wish there was a little more of an explanation to some images. But, by and large, the text is concise and sufficient.
The mixture of imagery and text in A Life Behind the Lens means that the book can be enjoyed in various ways depending on the reader’s preferences. For some, the text will be integral to exploring the book, whilst for others, it will simply be a case of enjoying the photos. For me, personally, it allowed for two experiences for the price of one; in the first instance reading from cover to cover, and then going back for a second look, where I could really take in the photos. Of course, it is also a book that can be dipped in and out of and one that can create discussion and interest amongst sports fans as they debate their favourite pictures and trigger memories.
The pictures themselves are varied, and although there is a predominance of football and boxing images, they also cover golf, diving, triathlon, hockey and much more. Posed shots sit alongside action shots; the victorious alongside the vanquished. Personally, I loved the artistic Olympic opening ceremony shots, but I was also fascinated by several of the boxing images, which are both incredibly visceral but also highly artistic as they literally capture the blood, sweat and tears of this most physical of sports.
Amongst my very favourite shots by Pelham are a stunning silhouette of Tiger Woods, a black-and- white image of Paul Robinson, a shot from behind the goal as Thierry Henry watches the ball go in, incredible double-page spreads of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, an action shot of a Lionel Messi header, an iconic image of the Brownlee brothers, a picture of Olivier Giroud’s famous Scorpion kick goal that could grace any spot the ball competition and an emotional farewell shot of Arsene Wenger. But there are so many images in here that will resonate in different ways for different people and it’s a real joy to look back on these photos and to reminisce, but to also get an added insight into these moments.
For me, this was, shamefully, the first time that I really appreciated the way sports photography gives a sense of the moment in a way that other media, including film, simply can’t. It has the power to bring to life the moment in a way that the written word is unable, whilst it has the ability, when captured perfectly by the likes of Pelham, to press pause on a moment in sporting time that is transient in filming and quickly glossed over, for instance in that split-second of impact in the boxing ring or the mid-air shape in gymnastics. This book is the perfect testament to great sports photography and a man who has spent his life behind the lens capturing sporting moments that fans have committed to memory.
A Life Behind the Lens by Richard Pelham
Review by Jade Craddock