Atlanta sports don’t have an especially storied history, but — as in any major sports city — for those that have grown up fans of Atlanta teams, there are certain images ingrained in the collective memory. Many of the peaks belong to the Braves, whether Sid Bream’s slide into home in 1991 or Mark Wohlers celebrating the final out of the 1995 World Series, but the Falcons, Hawks, and, yes, even the three professional hockey franchises the city’s been home to, have their indelible images.
For the past 40 years, many of those iconic images of Atlanta sports have been captured by Getty Images photographer Scott Cunningham. He’s been a nearly ubiquitous presence in the photographers’ area on baselines, sidelines, foul lines, rinkside, and ringside for four decades and so his catalog of photos is, in itself, a museum of Atlanta sports history. For the past week, and running through Aug. 14, a selected group of Cunningham’s best works are on display at the Westside Cultural Arts Center in Atlanta, celebrating his four decades shooting Atlanta sports and offering a glimpse into the diverse array of subjects that Cunningham has photographed in action over the years.
Cunningham has shot most every sport, and even served as Atlanta-based WCW’s lone lead photographer for three years, but his most consistent work has been covering the Atlanta Hawks and the NBA, where he’s captured iconic images of Atlanta’s stars and those from around the league. Ask Cunningham about his favorite teams to shoot over the years, and the list is one that would surprise very few. The Showtime Lakers and Boston Celtics of the -80s, the Bad Boy Pistons of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and, of course, Michael Jordan’s Bulls.
For a photographer, there was no subject better than Michael Jordan in action. Jordan was poetry in motion, as Cunningham describes him, and was a player who made it impossible to get a bad shot. Larry Bird was a different kind of photogenic than Jordan, but he was worth going to great lengths to ensure you got a great shot of the legend on one of his two trips to the Omni.
“When Larry Bird broke in, he was a guy that you couldn’t keep your eye off of,” Cunningham recalls. “One good thing about him was he was slow. You didn’t have a problem keeping up with him. The only thing about him was, when you are exposing pictures for NBA players, you’re exposing for skin tones that are a medium dark, and Larry Bird was just white as a sheet. So, half of my pictures, Larry Bird’s blown out. So, really, you had to close down a good bit to get good Larry Bird pictures and you had to shoot a completely different way when the Celtics were in town, just for that one thing. You’d have a hard time picking out players out of the background, because if he only plays here once or twice a year, it was worth doing.”
Cunningham, like any photographer, enjoys shooting the best players and those that play with a certain flair, and while there are plenty of Jordan, Bird, and Magic images in his collection, there’s no subject he chronicled more closely than Hawks legend Dominique Wilkins.
The Hawks franchise, in its Atlanta iteration since 1968, has one singular figure that is synonymous with the organization. Wilkins sits atop most every significant category in the Hawks’ record books and his statue lives alone out front of Philips Arena. While it wasn’t until 2015 when he was officially immortalized in bronze, for Hawks fans, the images of ‘Nique dominating on the court were etched into their memories long ago.
Many of those moments and images that live on to tell the story of Wilkins’ career were captured by Cunningham, who is forever grateful for the opportunity he had to cover one of the NBA’s greatest throughout his prime, but the admiration and appreciation is mutual between Cunningham and Wilkins. For an NBA star, especially of Wilkins’ era, photos that end up in a magazine or on a poster help make them an icon to fans, young and old, who pick up a Sports Illustrated or buy that poster for their wall, and the importance of sports photography and the people behind those shots like Cunningham on building their star power isn’t lost on Wilkins.
“Sports photography helps make us who we are,” Wilkins says. “They help make us famous. They make us relevant and noticeable. So, as a young player when you see your picture in print in major publications, that shows you that you’ve finally arrived. Scott has captured that many, many times of me as a player.”