January 21, 2023 7 min read 2 Comments
By Ray Glier
Award-winning photographer David Burnett, 76, had an exhibit of his photographs at The Ringling, a museum in Sarasota, Fla., titled “Fourth Quarter: Senior Athletes, Their Indomitable Spirit.”
You look at just one of the black and white photos and you don’t have time to declare, “Oh, these pictures of old people are cute.” Something else seizes your emotion first. Before the wrinkles. It is the determination in the eyes of these “old people”, or the glee on the face of these “old people.”
Look at these people. You do not hold cheap these people who are playing hockey, skateboarding, swimming, boxing, and hang-gliding. The images are restive, rousing, soulful. That’s what you notice immediately, not their wrinkles.
Burnett would linger in the gallery, off to the side, a fly on the wall, and he heard the whispers and saw the viral reactions among the people who came in to view the collection.
“The one word you just kept hearing from everybody that came in was ‘inspire’ or ‘inspiration’,” Burnett said. “People see these older folks, and they are really moved to think about being older in a very different way.”
Burnett wants to un-mothball the Fourth Quarter exhibit and take it to Pittsburgh for the 2023 National Senior Games. I can see it as a re-charging station for the athletes. They will see the gnarled fingers and glowing faces of Burnett’s crew and declare, “That’s me” and rush for the field or court with renewed vigor.
“What I’ve discovered is that older athletes are just as ripped and ready to go as the kids,” Burnett said.
“You see this desire to get out and perform, even if you are only there to perform for yourself.
“So much of this is not about being good. It's about being good to yourself. If you're having fun, who cares if you're any good.”
Burnett is truly into it, as only a storyteller can be. He finds the plain truth right there in black and white, which is that growing old doesn’t have to be about infirmities. It is about doing what you’ve always been doing.
There are supposed to be diminishing returns with these older athletes. And it’s true they are not as fast as they once were and their quick twitch is eroding. But there is nothing diminishing about their zeal for sport and Burnett whipsaws it on our consciousness, as only a great photographer can do.
He captures what we don’t see immediately. The images talk back to us, “Take another look. This is what you missed. Do you see?”
The anticipation, the concentration. And the unglamourous twisted expressions of intensity. You get a better sense of all of it, especially with the black and white, which Burnett says is more emotional.
In a way, these Geezer Jocks make it easier for Burnett to his job. They put themselves out there.
“Track and field is always fun, you can just see the intensity written on the faces of the of the participants,” Burnett said. “They don't hide anything. They don't hold anything back.”
Burnett’s photos disrupt in a seismic way our idea of “cute old people playing ball.” It is a severe reordering of our prejudices and it happens in a blink of an eye, or how long it takes us to zero in on a gnarled set of fingers wrapped in tape.
There is no doubt Burnett’s skill with light and shutter speed and angle and focus gives these people agency. But they do their share of the work to make these photos resonate with us. You can’t fake what’s in black-and-white right in front of your eyes, which is their intense joy. Real sports.
“I think if you're a 75-year old runner, you have in your own soul and in your own heart, a feeling like Usain Bolt does at the Olympics, the only difference is that you're not anywhere near as fast as he is,” Burnett said. “But in your own little world you feel the same kind of dedication to making it happen as the athletes who are Olympic-level athletes.
“That's what I try and distill; some of that personal desire.”
The games possess certain truths that don’t dim with age. For instance, the insufferable gunner, that kid on the block who shot the basketball every time they got their mitts on it. The first pass was the last pass with that kid. Burnett saw it with an 80-year old women’s team from Arkansas, who had one player who was deemed the “black hole” where the ball never came back out once she got it.
“It’s so much like 11-year old kids on a city park court,” David said. “That never goes away, 70 years later.”
The Arkansas women allowed the gunner to carry them with her shooting because, after all, the idea was to win. You sacrifice some pride to win and stay on the court. Some things don’t change.
“Granny basketball,” said Burnett, “is just so much fun.”
The hockey picture in the Fourth Quarter exhibit is a Burnett favorite for several reasons. Before Covid, he mixed it up in a no-check hockey league in Newburgh, N.Y. He hasn’t skated in 2½ years, which would have made him 73 out on the ice.
“I always have one foot in the athletic world, even though I never really was an athlete in high school or college, I was always the kid taking pictures,” he said.
The other reason the hockey photo is so alluring for Burnett is the hierarchy of the team is revealed. It is a group shot in the locker room with the veterans—a guy in his 80s, one in his 90s—clowning with “youngsters” who are in their 50s and 60s.
“It reminds me of the joy of just doing stuff, you know, I mean, life is really meant to be lived,” David said. “If you're lucky enough that you have made it to a certain age and you have a sense of passion for doing stuff while you're alive, that's a big deal for me. And that's something I don't want to ever lose.
“I don't ever want to get rid of the chance to go do something.”
Burnett did stuff.
In an era way before jeans were designer and computers were personal, Burnett was among the best in the world shooting pictures for glossy magazines, like Time, and National Geographic, and news outlets, like The Associated Press. He was a mercenary, a shooter for hire, if you will. He shot the Apollo 11, the Iran Revolution, the Olympics, Presidents, would-be Presidents, and the disaster of war.
Burnett was a war correspondent in Vietnam from 1970-1972. There was a ticking clock on the Americans there, more on the soldiers, of course, but also on the media. Maybe your time would come, maybe it wouldn’t. It wasn’t always up to you, if you were doing your job.
A stubborn South Vietnamese helicopter captain kept Burnett from his doomsday clock. A chopper was loading photographers for a run to the Laos border to see the Americans try and cut off the Ho Chi Minh trail supply line for the Vietcong. Rotors were spinning and Burnett was told he couldn’t get on. He pleaded. He was too late. Every major news organization it seemed was on board, except him, the 24-year old from Time. He felt like a “twit...the guy who just couldn’t cut it.”
Later that day, the report came. Twenty minutes into the flight the chopper was shot down. 11 dead, including five international photojournalists.
Burnett wrote, "..something in my soul has driven me to try and make the most of my professional life since then having been spared that awful fate at the time, but so aware that those guys on the chopper were the savviest, smartest, most experienced....and that even they were not beyond the fickle moment which fate was capable of dealing at any time."
When he came home from the war Burnett had the offer to shoot for the Holy Grail of photo magazines, Life. The day Burnett was supposed to leave on his first assignment, the venerable magazine closed down.
It seems flush with karma that David grew up in Holladay, Utah where he attended Olympus High School, Olympus being the famed camera manufacturer.
His career started by accident, if you can call a mother’s admonition “You won’t get into a good college without extra-curricular activities” as an accident. David went to a meeting for the high school yearbook, considered the available positions, and became a photographer.
“Soon, there I was in a dark room, seeing a print develop, and it was like magic,” he said. “The magic never goes away, really.”
Burnett was also shooting pictures for the local newspaper and getting paid for it.
“I just liked the idea of my pictures being seen by people,” Burnett said. “I didn’t want to just put them in a drawer.”
His first camera is about 63 years old. He still has it. One of those yellow Kodak machines. You remember those, right?
Burnett remembers his “grandpa” and how the man just accepted that it was a full time job “just being an old guy.”
“He would never in a million years have thought of himself as a runner, or a skater or a volleyball player,” Burnett says. “A lot of attitudes have changed.”
Burnett is in his 70s, but he cherishes being able to get back on a bike on a regular basis in south Florida. “Even if it is just 20 minutes or so every day, just get your ass in gear, you know,” he says.
He is grateful for the push from his fellow Geezer Jocks to keep moving and he insists he will keep up this endeavor of making art of older people being active. Their fun-filled faces remind us of an era when it wasn’t the money that chased us outside to blue skies.
“Once you’re exposed to it, these older athletes, it draws you in,” Burnett said. “You see what is available and what's possible and it convinces a lot of people that, you know, ‘That's a pretty good way to spend part of my day’.”
Burnett in his gear in the N.Y. ice hockey league.
Burnett lugging the gear at the 1984 Olympics in LA.
Burnett resting in the back of the Mini Moke, the mule of the photo corps in Vietnam.
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