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.”
By virtue of capturing a single frame and moment from a game or event, photography carries a certain weight to it that videos and highlights can’t, because it captures all the varied emotions and actions within the frame. From the main players, to those on the fringe in the background, to the crowd reaction, a still image displays the emotion of a moment in a way that video still isn’t able to. It’s what makes something like Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston iconic and unforgettable.
For the athletes involved, those still images offer more than just a way to remember a moment. They offer context that, to them, was otherwise unknown or missed in the speed of the action that you wouldn’t be able to pick out on video.
“In a still picture, it captures so many things that you can concentrate on without trying to rush through it,” Wilkins says. “To go back and see if you missed something. It captures everything in one photo, and that’s the magic of photography. It captures the most intimate moments in a person. It kind of immortalizes you.”
The goal of every photographer is to capture one of those iconic images. To be in the right place at the right time to snag a shot of something historic takes luck, but also preparation to know where you need to be and to be operating with the right equipment, to land that perfect shot. From the outset of his career, Cunningham’s goal has always been to get one great shot from each game he’s covered.
Even those lonely nights at the arena in the dog days of the season, when the seats are half empty (or half full, depending on your level of optimism) for a Tuesday night game with the Grizzlies, there’s a great shot to be had.
Cunningham will admit he doesn’t succeed every night, but feels like he’s gotten that great shot he wants at the vast majority of the events he’s showed up to over the years. There’s far more involved to getting those great shots than just showing up with your camera and plopping down on the baseline. Among my favorite shots on display at the exhibit is a pregame shot of LeBron James and his famous chalk toss, but for the shot, Cunningham went to the catwalk high above the arena floor to get an overhead shot of the chalk toss rarely seen.
We’ve all seen the chalk toss from LeBron James hundreds of times, but this shot brings a unique perspective. To get it, Cunningham missed most of the first quarter in order to be in the catwalk directly above James when he went to the scorers table. The plume of chalk dust obscures almost all of James’ face, with the exception of his eyes peeking directly at the camera through the dissipating cloud as the television cameramen crouch to each side, working to get floor angle shots of the ritual.
It’s not an Atlanta sports moment, but from this game in 2009, it was Cunningham’s great shot for the game.
There are other images on display at the exhibit that are far more representative of Atlanta. Cunningham’s favorite sport is hockey and he’s managed to see three professional hockey teams leave the city in his tenure as a photographer — he wonders if it’s a him problem that keeps driving his beloved hockey teams away. Cunningham shot from rinkside at countless Thrashers games, but the hockey related image that pops out at the exhibit has nothing to do with players on the ice, yet manages to be the most Atlanta image in the entire exhibit.
Without needing to see a date line next to this image, anyone from Atlanta could narrow it down to being from somewhere between 2002 and 2006 (it’s from 2006), and there could not be a more perfect encapsulation of Atlanta than an image of an iced out Lil Jon posing with the Stanley Cup. The King of Crunk is the closest thing to royalty the city’s ever had — maybe with the exception of T.I., the King of the South — and here he is, with his chalice and the most storied trophy in American professional sports. For more than two decades Atlanta has been in a championship drought, so its fitting that the lone image of an Atlanta figure with a championship trophy on display at the exhibit is of Lil Jon, because hip-hop is the one thing in which Atlanta can lay claim to the crown.
Cunningham’s photos tell the story of Atlanta sports history like few people can. He’s been there for heartbreak and triumph, with significantly more of the former. He’s seen multiple stadiums constructed and demolished, as is the Atlanta way and in between the rise and fall of those sports coliseums he’s captured the essence of the city’s biggest stars and iconic figures.