Why take photographs of basketball courts but leave out the players? For photographer Bill Bamberger, basketball courts tell a compelling story by themselves. They are signs of play — and community life. The environment surrounding a court tells a lot about the community that created it.
In Hoops, a new exhibition at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., Bamberger and curator Chrysanthe Broikos edited the 22,000 images of basketball courts Bamberger shot around the world over the past 15 years to just 75.
At the preview, Bamberger said he was intrigued by conceptual artists Bernd and Hilla Becher’s famous photographs of water towers and other industrial buildings. The duo shot objects in black and white, in the “same neutral light,” from the same angle, forcing the viewer to notice the small differences between the industrial remnants. The result was “there was no context.”
Bamberger is clearly inspired by aspects of their approach. The focus of this exhibition is entirely on one built object — the basketball court. But he also diverged from their path by highlighting the context — the environments surrounding the basketball courts.
In one photograph of a court at a charter school playground in Harlem, New York City, one can see the “color and the diversity of the place” (see image at top).
In contrast, in Phoenix, Arizona, the basketball court at a wealthy school almost blends into the landscape, its edges fading into the desert.
In a church playground in Kinihara, Rwanda, where Bamberger visited with his partner, who is an HIV/AIDS researcher, the “inventiveness” of the community is apparent — the handmade basketball posts are made of tree trunks, the backboard is made up of old wood planks, and the rim is fashioned from found metal. The space from which players shoot is demarcated by bricks embedded in the ground instead of the usual painted lines.
Basketball hoops pop up everywhere there is life — on the sides of buildings and homes and along streets. One of Bamberger’s favorite photographs is of a hoop on a grain silo in Portland, Oregon.
And one call tell from the pictures which hoops are well-used and loved and which have been abandoned. A hoop at an abandoned campsite in Tennessee, where a homeless family was living in an old bus, is a remnant left by people moving through.
Bamberger said some of the greatest hoops were found in communities facing incredible challenges. One charming court in struggling North Fork, West Virginia, shows the hope and vitality still there.
The Hoops exhibition shows you that if you see a basketball court somewhere, some unique group of people came together to built it. “Play is a necessity in community life.” Basketball courts are really community portraits.
Hoops opened just in time for the 2019 NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments. The exhibition is on view through January 5, 2020.