Michelle Gustafson’s Unique Take on America’s Oldest Track and Field Competition
March 4, 2019
A women’s shuttle hurdle relay race at the 2018 Penn Relays. Photographer Michelle Gustafson attended the competition to do a story “about the feeling of being there. I wanted to find something visually interesting, something that looked different about track and field.”
Alden Pringle, 15, watches his teammates finish the high school boys’ 4x400. Gustafson anticipated images such as this by observing competitors as they watched, waited and prepared for races on the sidelines.
Chante Moore, a sprinter representing Guyana, has her legs stretched before a women’s 4x100 race. Shooting track and field is about “color, geometry, light [and] vantage point,” Gustafson says.
The Penn Relays is the oldest and largest track and field event in the U.S. Staged annually since 1895 at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field, the three-day competition attracts athletes from high schoolers to collegians to Olympic royalty. Runner’s World typically covers race results, but Photo Director Amy Wolff decided to approach it differently this year.
“I thought the Penn Relays would be a good option for a photo essay,” she says. “I wasn’t looking for a sports photographer. I was looking or someone who could tell a story.”
Wolff called on Philadelphia photographer Michelle Gustafson, who ended up shooting a story that mixes race action with vignettes from the infield and sidelines. Called “On Your Mark,” the story appeared in print in August, and online in October, with images that stand out for their bold, colorful style. “It’s about the feeling of being there,” Gustafson explains. “I wanted to find something visually interesting, something that looked different about track and field.”
Gustafson got the job on the strength of a story she’d shot previously for The New York Times about a track team from Namibia. Wolff says she asked Gustafson to attend the Penn Relays with an eye toward capturing “all the moments, and the emotions that type A teenagers would be experiencing at the event.”
They also discussed how to depict the young, athletic bodies. Wolff says she didn’t want photos that sensationalized the story or objectified the athletes. “I wanted to be sensitive because they’re kids. I didn’t want to just show a bunch of overly thin runners, which they can be, but instead celebrate the intensity of the event, the strength that it takes, and all the work that it shows.”
With that, Gustafson picked up her media pass, and checked the schedule for events that sounded visually interesting. The first to catch her attention was “distance night,” which draws few spectators, leaving a big, mostly empty stadium to runners, teams, coaches and a few die-hard fans. “It felt different, and personal, so I went with that,” Gustafson says. “The actual event is important, but things I’m looking for are side stories, right before or right after.”
She ended up shooting what would become the closing image of the story: a photograph of two runners collapsed on the track after completing the men’s 5,000-meter race. They looked in need assistance, with a few spectators standing by, nonchalantly ignoring them. Gustafson says the image “speaks to the competition, and to something that’s not normally published.”
She describes the Penn Relays as “organized chaos,” and says she approached it as she would any chaotic sporting event or a political rally, for that matter. “I’m trying to focus. There’s a lot going on, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed. You have to center yourself and be patient,” she says. “Track and field is color, geometry, light, vantage point. I’m looking for color and saturation that the light brings in.”
By observing athletes as they prepared for races or stood on the sidelines watching other competitors, Gustafson was able to anticipate images and position herself for them. For instance, the image Wolff chose for the story opener shows women competing in an event called a shuttle hurdle relay, a relay race where runners run in opposite directions from the teammate who runs before them.
Gustafson had already seen the men’s shuttle hurdle relay. “From ground level, you couldn’t really see horizontally what was happening,” she explains. She realized she needed a higher vantage point, to visually separate the runners, with the track serving as a negative background space. “So I went into the stands, and it all came together. The lines are right, the color is right, the geometry is right, and everybody is situated.”
“That’s something I was looking for: different angles,” Wolff says, “because a lot of running shots are shot from the same [angle]—completely parallel or perpendicular, and any kind of different angle I feel gives a different perspective.”
Another image Gustafson anticipated was that of a high school student in a bright red shirt leaning on a metal barrier, intently watching his teammates complete a 4×400 relay race. “There were kids doing that over and over, to different degrees,” Gustafson says. “You pick up on it, and wait for the right person, at the right moment. With him, it was his body language.” She popped a fill-flash at close range. “It’s not as if he didn’t see me, but some kids [see you and] start to pose a little. He knew I was there but I wasn’t there.”
Other images show runners stretching, or engaging in other pre-race rituals such as rubbing Icy Hot into each other’s legs. “These [activities] are not things [the runners] find incredible, but to a photographer, it’s visual eye candy: color, light and graphicness,” says Gustafson, who shot with a Canon 5D Mark III and several lenses, including a 35mm prime and a 24-70 zoom.
She provided Wolff with a wide edit of about 100 images. In making selections, Wolff says she was looking for scene-setters that gave a sense of the location and the crowd, as well as images that showed what was happening from different perspectives. “I wanted a variety of compositions, where people were close in the frame, people were far away, something that showed some detail, something that showed the variety of kids who were there.”
With suggestions from Gustafson, Wolff narrowed the story down to eight images. Runner’s World published them with Gustafson’s first-person account of the Penn Relays. That account was based on an interview that Runner’s World editors recorded with the photographer.
“This was really like a dream assignment,” Gustafson concludes. “It’s great to have an editor that wants you to take risks and listen to your gut, and [who] trusts how you’re going to interpret things.”
Who I’ve Hired: Amy Wolff, Photo Director, Runner’s World and Bicycling