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Going to extremes
George Silk, photojournalist
12 August – 12 November 2000

Introduction | Gallery | Silk works at the NGA

 

Fawn and rainbow trout, tributary of the Madison River, Montana 1961 dye transfer colour photograph printer later © George Silk more detail

Fawn and rainbow trout

A variant of this picture appeared in George Silk's photoessay for Life, 'Wild Creatures of America', in December 1961. The overall theme of that special double issue of the magazine was 'Our Splendid Outdoors'. Silk travelled 11,000 miles across America over four months on the assignment. To make this picture he used his knowledge of the way spawning trout react when disturbed:

... I moved some rocks to make the water flow in a way attractive to spawning trout.

Silk waited more than a week for all the elements to come together. To show the trout and fawn together he enclosed his camera in a large glass box submerged half-in and half-out of the water and set the exposure from some distance away by a cable release.

 

 

Perfect ten point landing, Kathy Flicker, Dillon Gym Pool, Princeton University 1962 © Time Inc.

Perfect ten point landing

This image was the centrepiece of George Silk's story in Life, 20 April 1962, and showed three successive stages of a dive by the 14-year-old national champion Kathy Flicker - which the copywriter declared was surely worthy of a 'perfect ten' score. The assignment was shot in one afternoon. Silk had the water level lowered to half-way down a trainer's observation window in the side of the pool; he had six flash units set up to record Kathy's entry into the water - knowing that his timing had to match the entry exactly.

Spring-board, or 'art' diving was introduced into the Olympics in 1908 for men, and in 1912 for women. By the 1920s and 30s images of beautiful divers in mid-flight symbolised the new age of speed and unisex super-human sporting prowess.

Silk's image takes its place in a lineage of famous underwater shots - amongst those by the German photographer and film maker Leni Riefenstahl for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and the wondrous frozen and multi-flash high-speed studies of divers by Dr Harold Edgerton, the pioneer of electronic flash photography in the 1930s whose work was featured in Life.

Many later sports photographers have made images of divers in and under water, but Silk's black and white image remains a classic. Although Kathy Flicker did not become an Olympic champion, in the photograph she is immortalised, half-in, half-out of the pool.

 

 

Gretel and Weatherly, off Newport, America's Cup trials 1962 dye transfer colour photograph printed later © George Silk

Gretel and Weatherly, off Newport

In 1962 Gretel was the first Australian yacht to challenge the New York Yacht Club for the famed America's Cup. The defenders in Weatherly won the Cup. George Silk's image of the two boats captures the audacity and excitement of the 1962 Cup, but also makes the boats appear abstract and magical as in a children's book illustration.

This picture, although a personal favourite of the photographer, was not amongst the images reproduced in Silk's award-winning story on the America's Cup, 'Cutting the Waves for a Classic Cup', published in Life in August 1962, for which Silk wrote the text. The Life story was included in the definitive exhibition, The Photo Essay, at the Museum of Modern Art in 1966. The 1962 America's Cup essay established Silk as a photographer with the ability to sweep the viewer into the heart of the action and to share the passion of the 'yachties'.

 

 

Sweden's Olympic high-jumper, Gunhild Larking, Melbourne, 1956 © Time Inc.

Sweden's Olympic high-jumper, Gunhild Larking

Silk did not get sent to the 1948 Olympics in London but covered the British Empire Games in 1954 and the Pan American Games in 1955 where he made dramatic images using a Panon wide-angle camera. At the 1956 Games in Melbourne he made some wide-angle images but did not produce a major story.

Gunhild Larking, whom he followed as she waited for her heat looking like a starlet on a movie set was a hit with the editors who described her as 'winning hearts if not medals'.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My favourite cow. Spring in New Zealand, 1942 © George Silk more detail

My favourite cow

George Silk made this image of a pregnant cow in New Zealand in September 1942 while on leave after being in the Middle East, Greece, Crete and North Africa and before going to New Guinea. It reminded him of the book and Disney cartoon character Ferdinand the Bull, and remained a favourite image perhaps because of the contrast its humour and fertility made with the horrors of war. From New Guinea he sent a print to Life - he first saw copies of the magazine in the Middle East.

Life published the image in the section 'Pictures to the Editors' on 1 February 1943 and the following month ran his New Guinea photograph, the Blinded soldier. On the basis of these two photographs, Wilson Hicks, Executive Editor of Life, offered Silk a job covering the war for the magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hammer thrower, U.S. track team Olympic tryouts, Palo Alto, California, 1960 © Time Inc.

Hammer thrower

George Silk became interested in the aesthetic possibilities of the distortions produced in race-finish cameras when he covered the 1959 Kentucky Derby. Photo-timers had been in use since 1951 for athletics, and at the Olympics in 1952 and 1956. Photographs made in these cameras stretched or foreshortened the figures leaving only a tiny vertical slit of the film in focus at the exact finish line.

Silk had a portable version made, using a phonograph motor to drive the film past the slit which replaced a conventional shutter. The image produced by the slit camera turned the hammer thrower at the U.S. tryouts into a cartoon strongman, but also conveyed the intensely private moment of the athlete straining in his endeavour to win. The slit camera pictures were quite abstract — Silk said: 'I was thrilled when the prints showed strength, speed, design — originality.' For the tryouts story in Life, 18 July 1960, Managing Editor, Edward K. Thompson ran the slit-camera images as large illustrations alongside straight shots of the winners.

 

 

Halloween, 1960 © Time Inc.

Halloween

Silk had first tried out his slit camera by photographing his children and their friends dressed in Halloween costumes. A sequence of these colour images appeared as 'Spectacle of Spooks to be wary of on Halloween' in Life, 31 October 1960 — Executive Editor, Bernard Quint had the images cut and duplicated into wild graphic patterns worthy of a technicolour fantasy by Walt Disney.