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Marc Aspland: ‘The Art of Sports Photography’

Marc Aspland: ‘The Art of Sports Photography’

© Marc Aspland/The Times

September 2014

During a career spanning over a quarter of a century thus far Marc Aspland has gained an international reputation as one of the world’s finest sports photographers, with a style all of his own. He has been Chief Sports Photographer of The Times newspaper in London since the late 1990s but it is only now that many of his most famous images have been brought together in his new, and first-ever, book ‘The Art of Sports Photography’. CPN writer Mark Alexander spoke to Marc Aspland about what it took to create the magical images in the book and his unique approach to shooting sports.

Sometimes, when the stars align themselves, or a twist of fate plays graciously into destiny’s hands, things happen for all the right reasons. Thankfully, these epiphanal moments bring us order in an otherwise chaotic world. In the case of Marc, one such event provided him with an opportunity to explore the medium of photography and go on to forge a career rivalled by few others.

Immaculate timing

Marc Aspland was destined to take pictures and his moment came during a road trip to Le Mans nearly 40 years ago. “I was one of those lucky people in that photography found me,” he explains, recalling his first memories of picking up a camera. “As a young kid, I was into skateboarding, surfing and football. I was 13 or 14 when my brother and I went on a coach journey to the Le Mans 24 Hours race. A couple of the guys were very keen amateur photographers, and I was given this tool that would let me take pictures. In those days, it was pretty obvious and basic stuff, but it was the spark of something, and it quickly became far more than a hobby; more than skateboarding or surfing. It became a real focus of what I wanted to do.”

© Marc Aspland/The Times

Referee Joe Cortez quickly removes the gumshield of British welterweight Ricky Hatton after he is knocked out in the 10th round by American boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. at the MGM Grand Hotel Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, 8 December 2007. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D Mark II at a focal length of 17mm; the exposure was 1/500sec at f/2.8, ISO 1000.

That spark ignited a glittering photographic career that would be built around shrewd observations and immaculate timing. A Canon user from day one – dating back to the days of manual, film SLRs – Marc has become renowned for his distinctive images that have captured moments in a way few others would even contemplate.

He notes: “I’ve been fortunate to use Canon cameras my whole career, from my very first 35mm SLR camera, a beautiful Canon F1, to the ultra-modern and sophisticated Canon EOS-1D X digital cameras I use today. The equipment has changed beyond recognition during my career and an image taken at 1/8000th of a second can be transmitted directly from my EOS-1D X to the offices of The Times from almost anywhere in the world in a matter of seconds. Speed of filing images is now the priority but I believe quality will always surpass quantity in the race to have a picture published.”

How the book happened

The process of the book began when Marc received some sage advice from former Deputy Editor of The Times, and now Managing Editor of BBC News, Keith Blackmore. “We were talking over two years ago,” Marc recalls, “and he put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘you know what Aspers, you really do need to do a book’. I thought ‘who’s ever going to publish my editorial rubbish?’ ‘No, no,’ he said, ‘you need to do a book’.”

After discussing the idea with colleagues, Marc got in touch with book agent David Luxton and a dummy copy was produced and presented to various publishing houses. In the end, one of the world’s leading publishers of art, architecture and photography – Prestel – was selected, partly due to its preference for superfine heavy paper and partly because of its policy of selling books through museum art shops.

Prestel’s considered approach appealed to Marc, but it also drew him into a world he knew little about. “I’m so used to the crash-bang-wallop, ‘set-your-pants-on-fire’ day of an editorial photographer, that what I have learned in publishing was they do things at a rather slower speed.”

Although the book publishing process may have been significantly slower than his normal newspaper deadlines Marc did insist on making a key decision for the book. Rather than use a Prestel in-house art director Marc chose Mike English, himself a photographer and now a designer, and revealed: “I put my foot down and said I was going to bring in my own art director because I needed somebody to manage me. It’s about the flow of the book. Mike did all that and, for that, I am unbelievably thankful.”

Marc knows these emotionally-charged pictures intimately, but it was Mike who helped him to fine-tune his selection. The compilation of unforgettable images in the book details the full spectrum of human emotions. From the small Birmingham City supporter sitting on his dad’s shoulders brandishing ‘the Vs’ to golfer Jean van de Velde’s dismay at the final hole of the 1999 British Open Championship; they are all there.

“I’ve know Marc for some time,” explains Mike. “We put together a limited-run book for The Times on Ricky Hatton. It was the first publication we did together but I’ve also worked on some of his photographs: bits of re-touching and composite stuff. We know each other well. He takes great snaps and he trusts my eye. That’s what made this collaboration pretty straightforward.”

Oceans of photographs

The prospect of distilling “oceans of photographs” spanning 26 years of work would unnerve even the most avid picture editor, but Mike already had a firm handle on Marc’s approach after helping him to compile images for his website. Mike reveals: “I get the easy bit; I get a selection of images and I say ‘that works, that works, that doesn’t’. Putting the images together is a relatively easy exercise because all you are trying to do is get some energy, some flow into the pages.”

© Marc Aspland/The Times

On the 18th hole golfer Jean van de Velde scratches his head, his sunken ball visible in his shadow, standing in the Barry Burn, ruminating on the seemingly unassailable lead he has spectacularly thrown away during the final round of the Open Championship at Carnoustie, Scotland, 18 July 1999. Taken on a Canon EOS-1 at a focal length of 100mm; the exposure was 1/640sec at f/2.8, ISO 800.

It also gave Mike the opportunity to understand what makes Marc’s images work. Mike explains: “It comes down to three words: emotion; atmosphere and event, and Marc’s ability to lock them together. There are some sports photographers who are good at taking action shots. Marc takes the image from the fan’s point of view in an entertaining and attractive way. The success of the book will come from the fact it’s not the approach everyone takes. That’s what sets Marc apart as a photographer of sport rather than a sports photographer.”

There is obvious respect between the two men, borne out in a book that ebbs and flows at a dignified, yet compelling pace. To condense so much work into 144 pages would test even the closest relationship but Marc and Mike have achieved just that... and are still talking to one another! While the editing process appears to have gone remarkably smoothly, there was an inevitable hiccup along the way...

“In the whole book, there is only one picture that I wouldn’t have included,” says Mike. “It’s Jean van de Velde in the water. It’s a great composition and it has all sorts of emotion with it, but [personally] it does nothing for me.”

Interestingly, it’s one of Marc’s top shots and one that documents THE key moment in the career of the mercurial French golfer who could afford to take a double bogey 6 on the 18th hole at Carnoustie in order to win the 1999 British Open Championship. Marc explains: “I love that picture for the pure emotion. His golf career [went downhill]; everything spiralled downwards after that moment. If he had taken a seven iron off the tee, like I would have, he would have won a Major and the rest of his life would have changed. That’s sport. I wanted to capture the utter bemusement of the poor fellow.”

Another of Marc’s favourite images (shown in the Showcase of this article) is a portrait of a boy in a South African township flying through the air to save a football during the 2010 World Cup. He reveals: “We were in Sun City, where we had golf courses and swimming pools. We never stepped outside the place without an armed guard and certainly the England team didn’t. So I hired a local taxi driver who took me to a township. I had brought a World Cup ball that I gave to the kids as a present. They spoke no English and I spoke no African so we communicated through the joys of photography.”

He adds: “It is really nicely framed; he’s in the air above the trees, his brother and sister are looking at him and the light is lovely. I have very few of my pictures [on show], but [my wife] Audrey and I have that one on our kitchen wall in a two feet by three feet frame. Every time I look at that picture, it brings a bit of joy and hope. It is easily my favourite picture I took at the South African World Cup.”

© Marc Aspland/The Times

Action from England v Kazakhstan in a qualifier for the 2010 FIFA World Cup Finals, Wembley Stadium, London, England, 11 October 2008. Taken from a television gantry using a specialist Canon tilt-and-shift lens that produces an image that makes it look like the table football game Subbuteo. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D Mark II N with a TS-E45mm f/2.8 lens; the exposure was 1/1250sec at f/2.8, ISO 400.

Images that demand closer inspection

Marc is as much known for his unique perspectives as he is for his inherent ability to capture raw emotion. This is perhaps best illustrated in his tilt-and-shift ‘Subbuteo-style’ shot at Wembley taken during the early days of digital. “If you look behind the Umbro [advertising] boards, there are 40 to 60 photographers. I chose not to be with those guys and asked the FA [Football Association] if I could stand in the radio gantry. I didn’t go up there with a 70-200mm or a 300mm [lens], I went up there with a [45mm] tilt-and-shift lens so it is a proper ‘Subbuteo effect’. That position is now permanently manned by a Getty photographer and there are no editorial photographers allowed up there.”

Another example of his refusal to follow the crowd (although whilst photographing a crowd) is his image of England cricketer Alistair Cook about to catch a shot from Australia’s Mike Hussey during the first Ashes test in Brisbane in November 2010. Marc explains: “I kept coming back to this Alistair Cook picture, where the ball hadn't gone in his hands, and you’ve got all the Aussies [crowd] holding their hands on their heads to say ‘that’s an Aussie player out’, but then you’ve got all the English guys cheering saying ‘please catch it so he’s out’. It’s not the moment – for me it was just all the faces behind it; I just saw all the faces and before the ball landed I just clicked [the shutter button] and luckily the ball was on a black background. I just love the emotion of all those people. If you asked me what test match it was I wouldn't know; that doesn't matter but you know it’s England against Australia and therefore it’s an Ashes match; that’s why I like the timelessness of it all.”

© Marc Aspland/The Times

England cricketer Alistair Cook holds his nerve to take the catch for the valuable wicket of Mike Hussey as the home and away fans behind him show their divergent reactions to the unfolding drama at The Gabba cricket ground during the first Ashes Test in Brisbane, Australia, November 2010. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV at a focal length of 500mm; the exposure was 1/2000sec at f/5, ISO 250.

The book is full of images like that – images that stop you in your tracks and demand closer inspection. The picture of British boxer Ricky Hatton lying on the canvas with glazed eyes, and gumshield being taken out of his mouth, as you can almost hear the crowd screaming at him to get up. The black and white image of tennis superstar Rafa Nadal, illuminated by flash from another photographer, raising aloft the Wimbledon trophy after a marathon, rain-delayed, 2008 Mens’ Singles final that stretched late into the evening...

Of the Nadal image Marc explains: “I chose to be on a little platform, not with other photographers - it was one of those where I handheld a camera and there were so many flashguns going off that I thought ‘if I catch one of my colleagues’ flashguns it’ll work’, and, sure enough, one [flash] just illuminated him absolutely perfectly and I chose to make it in black and white. We had it printed and the Editor of The Times framed it and gave it to Rafa. I like that picture because it comes back to the fact that everybody would have taken a picture of the guy bathed in flash – I can't do that picture but I thought ‘there’s got to be a picture here’. It was 9.26 [in the evening], [after] the longest Wimbledon final ever. That [picture] hangs on Rafa’s wall in Majorca.”

Indeed each page in the book is filled with the kind of drama and character that only exists in top-level sport, uniquely captured by the cameras, lenses and photographic eye of Marc Aspland.

“I am genuinely proud of the book,” says Marc. “I am chuffed with my friend Mike’s work on my behalf and I’m really chuffed that [England rugby star] Jonny [Wilkinson] did the foreword, and none of his words were edited. I think you can look through this body of work and think, ‘now I get him, now I understand it’. I’m no Salgado but all of the images have very big and personal stories behind them; they are personal to me and I’d like them to be personal to the reader of the book.”

© Marc Aspland/The Times

A historic moment – it is 9.26pm when Rafael Nadal holds aloft the famous Wimbledon men’s singles trophy, having defeated Roger Federer in the last final to be played without a roof and the longest final in history at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon, London, England, 7 July 2008. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D Mark II N at a focal length of 35mm; the exposure was 1/40sec at f/2.8, ISO 800.

Original and evocative

Throughout his career, Marc has used Canon equipment. It’s a decision that has helped him to capture the unusual by engaging his instincts as much as his technique. The results are wonderfully original and hugely evocative. If sports photography is about précising an event, Marc does it with a wry side-ways glance through a Canon viewfinder.

“I just stuck with what I liked,” he concludes. “If I am going to look for that unusual stuff, I don’t want to be thinking about this thing I have in my hands that focuses the wrong way. I like the second nature of knowing a camera, and not having to look at it to know what it will do. That is why I have been a ‘Canon man’ my whole life.”

Bearing in mind that with this visually stunning book Marc has put a significant marker down on his career so far, looking back, if he could, what advice would he give his younger self at the start of his career? Marc takes a large intake of breath and then advises: “I would just say be true to your own photography. I was just lucky that my photography suited The Times. But it’s not just all luck; I’ve worked really hard at being a photographer. I’d say that for any photographer – whether you’re a wedding photographer, a landscape photographer or any [type of] photographer – it’s all too easy to just follow the norm or the fashion for the genre. For me, [it’s important to] have enough belief in yourself – no matter what you do just have enough belief in yourself and give it a go. Just be true and honest and don’t lose sight of what kind of artist or photographer you want to be.”

Biographie: Marc Aspland

Marc Aspland

Marc Aspland is the Chief Sports Photographer at The Times newspaper in London, where he has worked since 1988, after joining from the Watford Observer. He has covered four FIFA World Cup finals, plus every English FA Cup Final and each Wimbledon tennis final from 1988 to 2013. He has also shot at a host of British Open golf championships, World Athletics events, F1 Grand Prix, Six Nations rugby, and every Rugby World Cup tournament since 1991. In addition to photographing sport (and receiving numerous awards for it), he also shoots other genres and is a past winner of Royal Photographer of the Year. In 2009 Marc Aspland became a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain.


Spain’s Rafael Nadal pictured in action on his beloved clay surface against Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina in the French Open at Roland Garros, Paris, France, 29 May 2009. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D Mark II at a focal length of 150mm; the exposure was 1/1600sec at f/7.1, ISO 400.