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Giving 'Em Fitz: Hail to the unsung sports photographers

During the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, photographer Clem Murray and I were both scheduled to cover the men's downhill.

Retiring staff photographer Ron Cortes got a Gatorade bath from his colleagues after the Eagles' last home game. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)
Retiring staff photographer Ron Cortes got a Gatorade bath from his colleagues after the Eagles' last home game. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)Read more

During the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, photographer Clem Murray and I were both scheduled to cover the men's downhill.

Ultimately, his photo and my story received roughly the same amount of space in the next morning's Inquirer. But the effort required for each was hardly equal.

Murray awoke hours before me. He double-checked all the equipment he had laid out carefully the night before, then crammed a couple of large bags with cameras, digital cards, gigantic lenses, and monopods. He lugged it all to the first of a series of buses that would take him through the Northwest darkness to Whistler's snowy slopes.

Once there, he basically carried his burden up a mountain, unloaded it at a security checkpoint, and repacked. He raced his colleagues for a good vantage point in the snow and cold. He would wait there for hours before the race and his quest for its perfect visual representation began.

I stumbled into the Whistler press room a few minutes before the race.

Murray's day was not an atypical one for sports photographers, among the hardest-working and least-recognized professionals in journalism. Their tough jobs are even tougher and less rewarding now, in this age of smaller newspapers, smaller news holes, smaller staffs.

This week, The Inquirer lost several good ones to buyouts. The work of Ron Tarver; April Saul; Michael Wirtz; David M Warren; and especially 69-year-old Ron Cortes, whom Murray said "still has the reflexes and eye to capture all the peak action," have graced these pages for decades.

Each spent a lifetime schlepping, stalking, seeking. If you're a Philly sports fan, you've seen their work and likely marveled at much of it.

A great sports photo is indelible, much more so than a well-crafted column or story. The great photographers are like sculptors. The best of their work possesses an enduring solidity. It transcends mere craft.

Think of Muhammad Ali gesturing at a prone Sonny Liston; or a bloodied Y.A. Tittle on his knees; or that from-the-rear image of Babe Ruth in the Yankee Stadium gloaming, wistfully leaning on a bat during what would be his final visit to the house he metaphorically built.

Those iconic shots, whether we realize it or not, make up our sports memory banks. Hear a name or an event from the past and chances are the image we mentally conjure is a memorable photo.

"Photographs," Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography, "are a way of imprisoning reality. . . . One can't possess reality. One can possess images. One can't possess the present but one can possess the past."

Some of the best of the past's imprisoned reality covers the walls of our sports department's meeting room.

In one, on dimly lit Convention Hall's court, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell battle imposingly and elegantly. There's the famous shot of the Eagles' Chuck Bednarik crowing after he decked Frank Gifford. Bobby Clarke is hoisting the Stanley Cup. Mike Schmidt is joyfully celebrating his 500th home run. Dick Vermeil is being carried off the field by Charlie Johnson and Claude Humphrey after winning the NFC championship. And a smiling Joe Paterno, a demon exorcised, is exiting the Superdome field on the shoulders of some national-champion Nittany Lions.

Thirty seconds in that room and you've absorbed an important lesson about this city and its rich sports history. Not even Red Smith or Bill Lyon could manage that.

The most recent of those photographs was from more than 25 years ago. I wonder, now that print is an endangered species and the digital world that has replaced it such an impermanent one, who and what will fill the memory banks of future Philadelphia sports fans?

When I was a small boy in Olney, a Bulletin photographer, Joe Fiandra, lived a few rowhouses away on Albanus Street.

One night, as my father led me into smoky Convention Hall for either a Warriors or Globetrotters game, I saw Fiandra. The neighbor I used to see getting into his car or sitting on his porch was out there on the court, adrift on the gods' playing field.

He spotted us and snapped a photo that he later gave to my father. I couldn't wait to see the next day's Bulletin. Fiandra's game photo, taken with the same camera, may have been mundane, but my connection to it enhanced my fascination for sports and newspapers.

In subsequent years, I've consumed more sports photography than I could ever recall. And I've worked with dozens of photographers whose talent, dedication, and work ethic always humbled me, sometimes shamed me.

At those 2010 Olympics, after writing my long-forgotten downhill story, I slumped back to Vancouver. In the hotel lobby, well past midnight, I saw Murray. Despite his day's burden, he looked fresh and upbeat.

"Where you headed tomorrow?" he asked.

"Too beat to think about it," I said. "You?"

"Going back up the mountain," he said with a smile. "Got a 5 a.m. bus."