Story Beyond the Photo: staged or real?

27 July 2016
TASS photo archives
Schoolyard football, 1963

We all know that great footballers were not born that way, they had to work hard to attain greatness. Soviet schoolyards were the place where many a would-be football star started playing football, where they honed their play and learned to respect the opponent.  

This schoolyard photo is a good example of genre photography from the 1960s. Not only does it portray a familiar scene from that era; it presents a veracious image of schoolyard football as it existed in the Soviet Union. Back then every school kid thought it was his duty to know how to play football. In this picture, we see a schoolboy kicking the football into a makeshift goal, assembled with schoolbags. Nowadays this may look like a wrong thing to do from a pedagogical viewpoint, but people spared nothing for football in those days. The great goalkeeper Aleksey Khomich used to place his baby sister behind the goal line, claiming that she inspired him not to miss goals.  

It may be illuminating to take a closer look at this picture. We do not know who took it. Amateur photos rarely made it to the TASS archives. However, one cannot help noticing that the photo is not very high quality: the football is a bit out of focus. The photographer did not time the exposure right. It was too long, so the rapid movement went out of focus. Today, when exposures are in the centesimal fractions of a second even in amateur cameras, a photo like this would be rejected for sure. But it would not have been the case half a century ago.

With manual settings on his camera, the photographer had to anticipate events in advance. Catching a sudden ball kick on camera was in and of itself a stroke of luck. So a slight loss of focus was a very minor setback. In some measure the smudged football attests the authenticity of the photo.  

But it is no secret that, in the middle of the 20th century, photographers frequently staged their photos in search of a good shot, because taking photos was not as easy then as it is now. Staging was a routine practice then, but is completely unacceptable in this day and age. As a result, it is quite difficult to tell a real photo from a staged one.

On the other hand, if the scene had been preconceived, the photographer would certainly have set the exposure correctly and then everything would be perfectly in focus. The fact that the photo is imperfect indicates that the photographer had managed to promptly react at the critical moment, and deserves every praise for that.  

This is not a sports reportage photo strictly speaking. The photo must have been taken for a news report on some school, or completely by accident. And yet it tells us a lot about the boys those days, how much they loved football, and is also a reflection on photography at that time.


Maria Vashuk


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