Q&A: Atlanta Hawks photographer Scott Cunningham talks '40 Years Beneath the Rim'

The longstanding photog opens up about his exhibition at Westside Cultural Arts Center

Perhaps the best thing about Atlanta Hawks photographer Scott Cunningham's exhibition, From the Baseline: 40 Years Beneath the Rim, at the Westside Cultural Arts Center is that the greatest images are not about who is in them. Sure, there are pictures on dislay of numerous superstars and celebrities like Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen and Lil' John, among others, but the most interesting pictures shine because of how they are shot.

Take for example the Atlanta Thrashers image below: A hockey player lies sprawled on the ice with a ref's hand in the air as if waving off a tormentor, another player with a look of innocence and a slight smirk of joy tries to escape a refs grasp, while a third player looks on in disbelief. Gloves litter the ice, and in the background the crowd cheers. It's a wonderfully composed image that not only captures a fascinating sports moment but also a great human moment.

Evander Kane ByEvander KaneScott Cunningham/NHLI/Getty Images

The show, curated by Atlanta Celebrates Photography Digital Director Michael David Murphy, thrills with these types of images. In addition to his Hawks coverage, Cunningham has shot 18 Super Bowls, seven NBA Finals, six NFL Pro Bowls and four World Series. He estimates he's shot more than 400,000 images of which Murphy and Cunningham waded through tens of thousands to find the 50-plus pictures that make up the show. The final edit makes for a exhilarating ride through decades of sports (and human) history.

Unfortunately the free exhibit ends soon; its short run comes to a close this Friday, Aug. 11. But before it wraps up, we caught up with Cunningham to reflect on four decades snapping pics for the Hawks.

How did you originally get the gig with the Atlanta Hawks? Do you work full-time for the team?
No, I don't work full time for the Hawks. When I moved to Atlanta, one of my first places I contacted was the Hawks, because I felt I had more experience shooting basketball, shooting almost all home Virginia Tech games for 2 seasons. I was really nervous, but the PR guy John Marshall made me feel very comfortable. He understood. We agreed that we would trade passes for 8x10 B&W prints to see if I was worth keeping around. We went game by game most of the season, then he bought several prints and that's all I needed to feed the dream.

How did you learn to be a photographer? Did you study photography or just teach yourself? ?۬
I took a six week course in my sophomore year in high school, and I really enjoyed the darkroom. I went to the Art Institute of Atlanta for three quarters, but was real frustrated because all they wanted to do was prepare you for portraits or weddings. I'm pretty sure now AIA is a much more progressive-thinking school. To answer your question, I was basically self-taught.?۬

How many Hawks games do you shoot a year?
I shoot all 41 regular season home games, two or three preseason games, and hopefully most of the playoff games home and away.

For you, what makes a great photograph? What are some examples of that from the exhibit?
I think timing and familiarity with most of the players helps me to have a step ahead of the part-time shooters at the Hawks games. My favorite Hawks photo is of Josh Smith taken by my "glass cam", a camera mounted behind the basket, and I knew Josh was going to really wind up. I got real lucky and made a portfolio photo that I may never top.

Josh Smith By Scott Cunningham NBAE Getty ImagesJosh SmithScott Cunningham/NBAE/GettyImages

One of the interesting aspects of the show is the various type of cameras you have used. As far as I can tell, you shot medium format, 35 mm film and now digital.
I started out with a Minolta SRT-101. I bought a few lenses for that, but soon realized J.C. Penney wasn't where I needed to buy equipment for what I was doing. I worked my way up through the pro model Nikon cameras, as well as several Hasselblad cameras, until I started shooting all digital around 2000.

Do you actually have lights in the ceiling of Phillips Arena? How do they work, and how do they improve the photographs?
I have two sets of strobes in Philips Arena and will configure them together or separately depending on the opponent and/or the Hawks alternate uniforms. I have them wired together in the arena catwalks, then run through conduit to the floor. I will run a wire or wires to the spots that I'll shoot from, or to a remote positioned camera. The image quality is so much greater than just shooting available light. I feel like the strobes, at 3-4 second recycle, is worth waiting for with the daylight light they produce.

When you go to work do you hope for overtime or a blowout?

I like to see as much basketball as possible! I hope for OT most nights. Other photographers and TV personnel get annoyed at me because I'm always telling them "three" as in three overtimes, and they want to get the hell out of Dodge. I did that last year against the Knicks early in the fourth quarter and got some one finger salutes.

ByLSU vs GeorgiaScott Cunningham/GettyImages

Did you ever have an embarrassing moment while covering sports or music?
In 1985, I was shooting the Falcons at the 49ers and Dwight Clark was taking his sweet time getting off the field, and I didn't realize I said it loud enough, but I said, "Get the fuck off the field." That set him off, and he got in my face and ripped me a new one. After halftime he came over to apologize, but I told him no need. I deserved it. I do remember I took a late-night flight to SF and was working with basically no sleep. Still no excuse. The field is the players' domain.

How do you keep a fresh eye when you have been shooting essentially the same thing for 40 years??۬
Somebody told me every game is a fresh piece of canvas, and it's up to you what you do with it. Personally, I just want to come away with one memorable shot or a portfolio shot. It's still a blast to me!

What photographers or artists have influenced your work?

I consider Walter Iooss Jr. the gold standard, the Michael Jordan of sports photography. On top of that, he's a really good person. Back when I idolized Heinz Kluetmeier and his dozens of Sports Illustrated covers, he shot a sequence of an amazing catch in a Steelers/Cowboys Super Bowl by Lynn Swann, he played it off as just run of the mill photos. I knew better.

Lil Jon Stanley Cup By Scott CunninghamLil Jon and Stanley CupScott Cunningham

After shooting so many major sporting events, what's something you've wanted to photograph that you still haven't shot?

Some people might disagree, but I think Atlanta is a great NBA city. If the Hawks made it to the Finals, this town might come unglued! That's what I want to see.

40 Years Beneath the Rim. Free. Tuesday-Friday: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Westside Cultural Arts Center, 760 10th St. NW. www.westsideartscenter.com.


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