The Art of Sports Photography: Marc Aspland’s favourite images

Marc Aspland, the chief sports photographer of The Times, was awarded an honorary fellowship by the Royal Photographic Society at a ceremony at the Royal Society.

Derek Birch, the president of the organisation, said: “The Royal Photographic Society, founded in 1853, is extremely pleased that a world-renowned editorial sports photographer, with such an international reputation, is being awarded an honorary fellowship.”

Aspland’s new book — The Art of Sports Photography — is published this week by Prestel. To celebrate his achievements, we are reproducing 20 of his best photographs.

From The Art of Sports Photography (Prestel, £29.99)

During my career, right from when I first picked up a camera as a kid, I felt that photography came naturally. I had found an art form which allowed me to express myself. I recognise how fortunate I am that photography found me, and it soon became more than a hobby. It became an obsession.

Even at photojournalism college in Sheffield I was warned not to return for a new term as I was just too “arty-farty”. At my first newspaper as a junior photographer I soon learnt that cheque presentations and golden wedding anniversary pictures for the local rag needed to be photographed a certain way, and not the way I wanted to photograph them!

If I can share a snapshot in time, I would tell of a moment when I was a young man in a hurry just trying just to get a toe in the door of The Times newspaper. Being the fourth or fifth choice freelance photographer I was assigned a football match on Saturday afternoon and by a strange chance ended up sitting next to Chris Smith, the legendary Sunday Times sports photographer, behind the goal at the Old Den, home to Millwall FC.

As a Saturday used to be a “non-edition day” for us daily newspaper photographers I made my way back to the old darkrooms shared by The Times and Sunday Times to process my black and white films. After collecting my films from the drying cabinets and taking myself off to the furthest light-boxes to view my negatives, as far away as possible from the hustle, noise and laughter of the many great photographers present, I began to edit from frame 1A to frame 36.

With my eye on a magnifying glass, clipping almost every other frame to be printed, I began to feel how remarkably well I had shot the match. Roll two and roll three followed with a growing feeling of greatness until I received a gentle tap on my shoulder and, looking up, found Chris Smith holding three rolls of film. He politely explained, “I am so sorry young man but I think you will find those are mine and these are yours!” We swapped films and I recognised immediately I had such a long way to go!

Fast forward to the halcyon days I spent with Oliver Holt, then chief sports writer of The Times. We were fortunate that the old broadsheet pages offered us the canvas to produce a weekly interview. While Oliver would be afforded an hour of conversation I would usually be hurried in the last ten minutes, as photographers invariably are.

Those days at the Watford Observer stood me in good stead when I would have just minutes to photograph a couple who had spent 50 years together before rushing off to the next assignment. By listening to the interview, trying to understand the footballer or athlete and what made them tick, it gave me an insight into how I could capture their very soul.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of modern photojournalism, described his concept of, “The Decisive Moment”, saying: “Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

I have missed many great sporting moments that have gone forever but I do believe my style of sports photography is rather more “defining” than “decisive”. Unlike the interviews conducted with my Times colleagues where I am able to impose my photographic style, it is live sport where I thrive.

The moment in sport, once missed, is gone forever. I cannot ask Jonny to retake that drop goal against Australia in 2003 because a green and gold shirt flashed in front of my lens but by searching out and seeing my own moments in time I try and capture a defining moment which sums up the whole match, the victory, the loss, the joy and the disappointment.

Similarly, I did not capture the decisive knock-out punch by Floyd Mayweather Jr against Ricky Hatton in Las Vegas in 2007 but the image of Ricky staring into the floodlights of the MGM Grand reminds me that, perhaps, I just might have emulated Chris Smith’s celebrated picture of Barry McGuigan staring defeat in the face from his corner stool against Steve Cruz in 1986 – his eyes telling the whole sorry story. For me, fine sports photography does not have to be about capturing the decisive moment but more about a picture telling a thousand words.

I believe it is the way we see pictures which defines us as photographers. Having an eye for the details or taking a panoramic scene makes us see differently as photographers. The sports editor of The Times will be inundated by thousands of images of say the 100 metres final at the Olympics but he will want to see how I have captured the event – and this is true at each and every sporting occasion I am assigned.

By being unique I can offer my newspaper our own identity and an instantly recognisable style of photography.

My job has changed in many ways but the art of great photography passes from one generation to the next, each of us trying to pick up tips and techniques from both our predecessors and those around us whom we admire and then we add our own vital style.

My career has spanned far too many years to count now, I am always leaning and refining my craft. My highlights range from the kids in Turkey to the picture I will take tomorrow. I sincerely hope you enjoy this collection and see something in the way I see pictures.

Do not take my word for it. Jonny Wilkinson writes in the Foreword, “With the press of a button, Marc gives me memories I can hold in front of me; memories which somehow end up being better than the fabulous experiences they depict. He manages to transpose events we all wish we had been there to experience into things we can still see for ourselves just as if we had been present.”