The Winter Games through a Victorian lens

Two_Winters_in_NorwayThousands of journalists are descending on the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics, among them a sizeable army of photographers. They will be armed with a suitcase full of kit, from laptops, cell phones, long lenses and the latest digital cameras. The lucky ones might also have a hotel room key.
 
It was a very different story at the turn of the 20th century when Arthur Edmund Spender set off for Norway to report on the 1900 and 1901 Holmenkollen Ski Festivals, the forerunner of today’s Winter Olympics. As far as I know he was the only British, probably the only non-Scandinavian journalist in attendance.
 
Spender was from the written press, a hack rather than a snapper, a future editor of the Western Morning News and the Shrewsbury Chonicle. So he had his notebook. And yet with that pioneering journalistic spirit he also armed himself with a box brownie and some guesswork, and attempted to capture the spirit and the excitement of the event. The fruits of his efforst appeared in his 1902 book Two Winters in Norway.
 
This is what Spender said about the art of taking pictures of the ski jumpers:
“I gained the following impressions from one who was an old hand at the feat. He remarked that as the jumper rushed down the hill, he could see nothing beyond him except the edge of the snow bank from which he made his leap. The people that waited beneath to see him spring were out of sight. 
Arthur Edmund Spender on his skis in Noray. This picutre probably taken by his travelling companion Francis Bennet
Arthur Edmund Spender on his skis in Norway. This picture probably taken by his travelling companion Francis Bennett

“Even the ubiquitous photographer who focused his camera upon a spot in the air in the hope of being successful was compelled to trust almost entirely to chance. This I found to my cost, for although I exposed a good many on the high fliers I did not secure one result that could be called satisfactory. 

“In most cases the only impression which I achieved in reproducing was the dull grey of the chilling sky or else the snow bank long after the jumper made his leap. I am inclined to think that the exposure was not sufficiently rapid, but the weather with snow flakes playing about hardly gave any of the opportunity for satisfying ourselves.
 
“One photographer, smarter than the rest of us, said that he took his photographs as he would bring down a partridge. He waited for the jumper to appear in the image of his finder, and then he would follow him round with his camera until he pressed the shutter. This result is successful in so far as you secure a good photo of the jumper, but naturally all the rest is simply a blur.”
 

SPENDER’S PHOTOGRAPHS

The hotel at Holmenkollen which later burnt down in a fire  (Arthur Edmund Spender)
The hotel at Holmenkollen which later burnt down in a fire
(Arthur Edmund Spender)
Awaiting the first arrivals near the finish line of the cross-country race  (Arthur Edmond Spender)
Awaiting the first arrivals near the finish line of the cross-country race
(Arthur Edmund Spender)
Waiting for the jumpers at the foot of the hill (Arthur Edmund Spender)
Waiting for the jumpers at the foot of the hill
(Arthur Edmund Spender)
This one is captioned "A Good Balance": this may refer not just to jumper but also to Spender's control of the camera
This one is captioned “A Good Balance”: this may refer not just to jumper but also to Spender’s control of the camera
(Photo: Arthur Edmund Spender)
"Suspense" - the moment of take-off, taken from the top of the jump (Photo: Arthur Edmund Spender)
“Suspense” – the moment of take-off, taken from the top of the jump
(Photo: Arthur Edmund Spender)
Ski-jumping was often more of a mad leap than an exact science (Photo: AE Spender)
Ski-jumping was often more of a mad leap than an exact science
(Photo: Arthur Edmund Spender)

Grant Leversha is an award-winning South African photographer who made his name in sport (we actually did a book together on the 1994 Springbok tour to New Zealand). He is delighted with Spender’s photographs and ever so slightly in awe.

“I think any photographer who attempted capturing a moving subject in the days up until the early 1990s had a difficult task, never mind the early 1900s when the camera was really just a box with a pin-hole, a fixed lens and a rangefinder system,” he says.

“No SLRs in those days. I remember I was weened on the old system of manual focus and the longer glass required that your subject had to pass through a predetermined area of focus with a really shallow depth-of-field. Unless, of course, you had refined your skill to pull focus. And hope for the best. It is something the younger photographers today have been spared.

“So, Spender was obviously made of stern stuff, pioneering stock. They generally were in those days. And to accomplish what he had achieved would have required real tenacity, skill and patience.

“The one image where he captured the skier jumping off the shelf, well there would have been some serious timing issues there. And he got it. One must remember you only had one shot, no ten frames per second then. So, to have captured a moment with the cumbersome equipment would have been quite something. And it clearly was.”

Testament to the pioneering spirit of Arthur Edmund Spender.

©Barney Spender/AE Spender 2014

You can read some excerpts of Spender’s chapter on Norway’s Olympic Games in the following three posts:

Part 1 – Sowing the Seeds for the Winter Olympics
Part 2 – The Thin White Line of Cross-Country Skiing
Part 3 – The Mad Leap of the Ski-Jumpers

  
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