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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mike Powell: Grace, Beauty…Action!

Mike Powell’s sports photography goes far beyond the usual moment in time

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After hitting the road for much of his career to cover just about every major world-class sporting event there is, Mike Powell finds himself in the studio a bit more often lately. A master at photographing the human body in motion, Powell got his start at Allsport, a well-respected sports photo agency that was acquired by Getty Images in 1998. His work has been featured prominently in publications that include Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, ESPN The Magazine, Stern and L’Equipe, and he’s taken home his share of awards, including the International Olympic Committee’s Best in Pictures and the Sasakawa Foundation Award. Turning his attention to a longer format, he’s now working on two coffee-table books with Grand Slam tennis the focus of one and the Tour de France the other. For these projects, Powell uses a different approach, bringing more of an artistic eye to the imagery than he would if it was a magazine or newspaper assignment.
Photographing for Allsport led Powell to a monumental occasion in 1991. It was the year likewise-monikered long jumper Mike Powell made history at the World Outdoor Championships in Tokyo by smashing Bob Beamon's 23-year-old record. The moment was captured on film by Powell and later made the cover of Sports Illustrated.

"I actually knew Mike well before his world-record jump from traveling to different track and field events," recalls Powell. "We'd always run into problems booking the same hotel in town. More often than not, one of our rooms would end up being cancelled as a double booking. So I got to know him really well. But that photograph launched my career in many ways. The ‘Powell shot by Powell' story infiltrated so many magazines at the time. I even became a Jeopardy question. That's when my career in the U.S. really took off. I was pretty well known at that point and received many requests for work."

As the years rolled by, the demanding travel schedule led Powell to try out studio and commercial work. "I needed a change from being on the road all the time," he admits. "Plus, sporting events were becoming sterilized, and it was getting harder to achieve access. They became more about being a TV spectacle. Suddenly, you were only given six holes in a fence to shoot Formula 1 racers."

Powell's commercial work brought him into the studio environment, sharpening his creative eye further. He worked on creating a signature style, taking his subjects from the stadium into the studio, crafting dynamic images of sports professionals in the throes of athleticism.

"Moving away from event coverage to working one-on-one with athletes, dancers and sports models allowed me to concentrate on the clean lines and form that I always tried to isolate during sporting events," Powell explains. "The athletes to me are shapes and movements that I light specifically to show off their musculature because it's their instrument. Then I break down their motion in my head into multiple frames and choose one to shoot. Shooting action in the studio is great because you get to boil the entire process down to its minimal form: motion, light and moment. You can't hide behind a great location or the emotion of the event. I like the simplicity of that."

Powell also is stimulated working alongside agency creatives, enjoying the collaborative nature of the business that the advertising industry offers. Re-creating ideas is a challenge he finds refreshing—but he also attempts to infuse a new element on the creative side whenever possible.

"Quite often clients have seen what they like in my portfolio and want to re-create that look," says Powell, "but you're hoping to add an extra element to the image during the shoot. If the art director has pinned down exactly what they want you to do, obviously to re-create their idea, you also seek to uncover something new, to try and take that picture they weren't expecting."

The unexpected is something Powell brings to the table in his current book deal with PQ Blackwell. The tennis Grand Slam tour took him to Melbourne, Paris, London and New York last year, with a planned book release in spring 2011. A book from his two-year Tour de France project is planned for release in late 2011.


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