The History of Sports Photography - David McNeil

When Hy Peskin took the photo on the left of Carmen Basilio (R) throwing a punch at Tony DeMarco (L) he couldn't have planned the backlit effect that he captured. The halo-like brightness surrounding this image seems to have been produced by a distant light at Boston Garden.

It was November 30th, 1955 and Basilio and DeMarco were fighting for the Welterweight Title. Such lighting effects were usually the byproduct of multiple flashes used at indoor sporting events. Since multiple flashes were apt to occur at key moments in the action, backlit subjects were not as uncommon as one might think. Admittedly, this effect was more likely a fortuitous coincidence than planned. However, Peskin would return to Boston Garden just a few weeks later and take a shot of Bob Cousy dribbling into the key--the shot that would land on the cover of Sports Illustrated (Jan. 9, 1956)--and become classic by the same halo-like light surrounding the drama. It makes one wonder if Peskin, aware of the specific lighting features at the Garden, positioned himself purposefully in hopes of repeating the magic? Questions like this are the subject of Unique Shots, and you can explore a number of other examples in the presentation I made to the Centre for the Sport and Health (see link below).

I confess to having a life-long interest in the history of sports photography. It began as a child leafing through issues of Sports Illustrated, an experience which will be familiar to any sports fan who was alive during the 1950s-80s and perhaps even later. And it wasn't just the photos themselves or the athletes they depicted, but the stories behind those photos: how a photographer happened to be in a certain position, how some special effect was captured. Much of this knowledge came from watching documentaries on television which featured classic photos from bygone years and information on the photographers who took them. Now children or people of any age can do the same simply by following a subject on the Internet.


Approximately thirty years ago, I started collecting material to write a biography of my father who had been a professional hockey player. He had a number of old glossies dating back to the 40s and 50s, and I became fascinated in their history. This led me to research famous photographers like Hy Peskin, Nat and Lou Turofsky, Roger Saint-Jean, James "Scotty" Kilpatrick, and many others. You can read about them in In The Pressure of the Moment: Remembering Gerry McNeil.

More recently, I had the opportunity to indulge in this interest as part of the Fall 2019 Lecture Series at the Centre for the Study of Sport and Health (St. Mary's University, Halifax). Here is a link to an mp4 recording of that lecture "Hockey Photography Circa 1950: A Slice of Sport History" (CSSH).  And here is a selected list of publications on the topic:

In my own amateur way, I have tried to have some fun capturing moments in the sport's history of my home province, Nova Scotia. Unique Shots began simply as an effort on my part to raise funds for teams that my children played for. I offered custom-framed photos for sale or for silent auction items. You can view some of this work by following the links below (to be added).

Now that I am retired I have time to indulge in this hobby. Send me a note at if you wish to hire my services to raise money for your own team or to entertain a group of people who share an interest in the history of sport photography. The lecture above can be adapted to focus on sports other than hockey (e.g., baseball, football, boxing, golf, the list is long ...) My children are now adults, but I still would love a chance to raise money for KidSport / Sport Jeunesse.

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Last Updated: 28 June 2020.