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Howard Schatz and the Shape of the NFL

The master photographer of the human form turns his lens toward the strongest and fastest athletes in the world

I have been fortunate to interview master photographer Howard Schatz many times over the years. We’ve discussed actors’ faces and dancers’ bodies, pregnant mothers and elite athletes. Each time there are a couple of consistent themes: the photographer’s attempts to surprise and delight himself, and his endless fascination with the human form. 

Recently, in Schatz’s journal “On Seeing,” he piqued my interest again with a new body of work about bodies. It is a study of professional football players he calls The Shape of the NFL. In his journal entry Schatz hypothesizes about a fictional exhibition of this work—complete with composite images of colossal prints framed in a bustling museum exhibition. Surely some poor soul is going to miss the asterisk and head off to Berlin in search of these monumental prints, but alas the gallery show is only fantasy. The photographs themselves, however, are quite real.

The Shape of the NFL adds a particular twist to Schatz’s career-long fascination with the body as a source of inspiration. Sunday television puts these athletes on display but of course their bodies remain hidden beneath layers of protective equipment. Schatz has revealed peak physical specimens built for strength and speed. The images are revealing and fascinating, enhanced by the photographer’s affinity for techniques that showcase power and motion in new ways.  

As the Super Bowl approaches, we asked Schatz about this project, about his love of experimentation, and what he has learned about the purpose-built bodies of professional football players. 


Q: You have been photographing bodies for a long time. What brought you to football players? Is there something special you’ve learned about them through this project? Are you now an expert in discerning differences between nimble receivers and powerful tight ends?

A: I’m interested in NFL players for a number of reasons. One is that they are all built differently. Defensive lineman are usually 300 to 350 pounds and form walls to protect the quarterback or produce holes in the line for running backs. They are huge human beings that have only a few basic functions. Cornerbacks, for instance, are like little gymnasts who can run backwards as fast as they can run forwards. They are often slight, not necessarily tall but extremely agile, flexible and powerful athletes. Receivers tend to be fast. We generally think of them as tall but really speed is more important than anything else for receivers. Tight ends are generally large individuals who could play the line, blocking and running, but they are also athletes with great hands who can become receivers. They are truly specialized individuals.

Linebackers are the most well built. They are cut and powerful. The outside linebackers tend to be larger than the middle linebackers, who tend to be faster. It is this variety of body shapes that has interested me in my NFL work. So I’m not only making pictures of what their function is, whether it is catching or throwing or receiving or tackling or running, I am interested in their physical nature as well. We have also made portraiture which I find quite fascinating. The work with the NFL players has been a lot of fun and it is very difficult because these are very highly paid athletes and in the off-season they live in Miami, Arizona or Los Angeles, and to get them here to New York has been challenging. 


Q: In this group are multiple exposure composites, stroboscopic sequences, colorful lighting… You keep it very interesting in a way I have to assume comes from a love of experimentation. How much is pre-visualized and how much is spontaneous? 

A: For the multiple imagery I use ambient light to show motion and multiple stroboscopic lights to show what the motion is in order to depict the function. I find that this is very useful for athletes as well as dancers. It is one thing to make a single beautiful, well-lit image of a great individual, and it’s another to show what the motion is that got them to that image, or how that image was the beginning of a motion. It is technically always quite challenging because we use front sync and rear sync stroboscopic as well as other mechanisms with multiple strobe packs in order to have rapid-fire strobe light.

You ask about pre-visualization. I think this is a trap. If a photographer, or any artist, has an image in mind that they plan to depict on paper or canvas, they are limiting themselves to the magic of error and the visitation of the creative gods. It is often something unusual that happens that brings forth characteristics and features that are surprising. If one makes an image just exactly as he or she thought then there is no surprise. It will be what I call good craft, a well crafted image in the vision of the craftsman, but it is not art. I believe that it’s important to explore and experiment and look for that which is unknown and has never been seen before. If one makes images of what one knows in one’s mind, I don’t think that person is making anything original or unique, special.


Q: I often share with other photographers things I’ve learned in conversation with you. Is there a piece of advice you might give to someone hoping to make better photographs of the human form? 

It is important for one seeking originality to have a vast visual data bank. It is important to be a scholar of one’s field. For photographers it is important to look at imagery of all kinds and look and look all the time, every day. The reason for this is when one looks through his camera and recognizes other images that other people have made, he can then tell himself ‘I’ve seen that before. How can I find a way to see this in a way I haven’t seen, or in a way that has never been seen by anyone before? What can I do with my camera, with my lenses, with my light, with my subject, with my position, that will make for something unique and surprising?’ Now, just because something is new and different does not make it fantastic. It requires all sorts of multiple details to come together in a way that is awesome, stupendous and miraculous. 

To see more of Howard Schatz’s awesome, stupendous and miraculous photography, and to subscribe to his journal, On Seeing, visit his website at

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