The Bulls of summer

dmenconi@newsobserver.comJune 1, 2013 

  • Track the progress

    Follow the progress of “Bull City Summer” at bullcitysummer.org. The documentarians will also give progress reports throughout the season on “The State of Things” program on radio station WUNC, 91.5-FM.

— Fresh from inserting a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth, the ballplayer paused from conversing with his teammates in the bullpen to watch a ball coming toward him. It was a foul ball rolling briskly down the right field of Durham Bulls Athletic Park. And as the ball kicked into the bullpen, the player caught it, flicked it to a kid in the stands and leaned over to spit a stream of tobacco juice.

Perched nearby, photographer Kate Joyce watched through her camera and snapped away. The bullpen is her favorite vantage point at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, and she’s spending lots of time there taking pictures for an unconventional documentary called “Bull City Summer.”

“It’s been a steep learning curve, and the bullpen is where I can get closest to the players,” she said. “Absorb their conversations, pick up on the rhythm of the game. There’s a contrast between the people joking around and those who are getting serious because they’re about to go in and pitch. There are subtleties to pick up on.”

Joyce is one of 14 photographers, writers and artists involved in “Bull City Summer,” a season-long documentary project. Any given home game, you’ll find between three and seven of them around the ballpark, documenting the game and the fans and the scene. Given that most were not baseball aficionados before this – Joyce does mostly commercial architecture photography in Chicago and is far more versed in dance than baseball – they’re taking some pretty unconventional approaches.

“I’m creating work for an audience similar to myself, people who probably don’t think they’re interested in baseball,” Joyce said. “So they’re images undeniably from a baseball game, but with gestures that are more familiar and universal, even if you don’t know anything about the game.”

“Bull City Summer” is the latest project of Sam Stephenson, formerly of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. He comes by his baseball bona fides honestly, having pitched for UNC-Chapel Hill in the mid-’80s, although he wasn’t among the Heels’ top players.

“You could say I did a lot of practicing,” Stephenson said with a laugh. “I peaked as a high school senior and never got much better than that.”

From jazz to baseball

“Bull City Summer” emerged in the wake of Stephenson’s last big undertaking, 2009’s award-winning “Jazz Loft Project,” which documented photographer Eugene Smith’s obsessive chronicles of a jazz hangout in 1950s New York. Pulling that together took 160 trips to New York and more than 500 interviews over 12 years.

After “Jazz Loft,” Stephenson was ready to work on something closer to home, outdoors and finite. The idea for this project came to him at the Bulls’ final home game of the 2010 season.

“It was a packed house, beautiful day, people there from all walks of life,” Stephenson said. “And it occurred to me that we could apply the same documentary techniques of ‘Jazz Loft’ – photography, oral history, audio, video – to this stadium. My driving motivation is to record aspects of history and culture that would otherwise fall through the cracks. What happens on the field is documented in a box score, but we’re more interested in the art, craft and grit of the game. You could compare ballplayers to jazz musicians, and there are also interesting behind-the-scenes stories to tell.”

Stephenson assembled a team of documentarians and turned them loose on the ballpark starting on opening day. After the season ends, their work will go into a book and an N.C. Museum of Art show; both should emerge in early 2014. Depending on funding, there might also be a video. During the season, words and pictures are also being posted to bullcitysummer.org.

One reason that the photographers can take fanciful and abstract approaches is that the actual game coverage is in the capable hands of writer Adam Sobsey, who also covers the Bulls for The Independent Weekly. Sobsey watches games from the press box, and also the close-in seats behind home plate to get a better view of the players’ demeanor.

Sobsey’s writing beat is the team as well as the larger world of Triple-A baseball. The Bulls are the top-level farm team for the major league Tampa Bay Rays, who can raid the local roster for players at any time. That gives the team and the season a transient feel – every player on the Bulls’ roster would rather be on the big league club, and they’re all trying to get there.

“Triple A is a curious place,” Sobsey said. “Any major league club would rather win the World Series and have the worst Triple-A team than the other way around. But you need players here who can contribute at the major league level. So while the results of Triple A don’t matter writ large, day to day they do.”

In addition to covering games, Sobsey’s “Bull City Summer” reporting ranges far afield and into other disciplines. One of his recent online posts worked in references to the recent “Wanderlust” photography exhibit at the N.C. Museum of Art and a documentary film about the iconic underground-pop band Big Star.

“I’ve always tried to look at the game from a broader cultural perspective,” Sobsey said. “Baseball especially resonates that way. With its national-pastime mythology, baseball alone is tasked with cultural and even moral weight. Steroids and performance-enhancing drugs are rampant in every sport, but only baseball is called before senators and basically put on trial. We don’t ask other sports to be responsible in that way.”

Where most “Bull City Summer” photographers don’t have a baseball background, 65-year-old Frank Hunter’s relationship with the game goes back to his days as a 14-year-old batboy at the El Paso Sun Kings ballpark. The Sun Kings were in the Texas League, the lowest level of minor league ball, and pay was minimal. Whenever a Sun King hit a homer, he’d circle past home plate to collect the dollar bills appreciative fans would put in the screen for him.

Transitions of light

Five decades later, Hunter is best known for landscape photography, and he brought that aesthetic into “Bull City Summer.” While it took some doing, he found a landscape to work with, which he’s calling “Light in a Summer Night.”

“Baseball used to be a day game, but it’s become more of a night game and that’s how most people experience it now,” Hunter said. “So basically, I photograph the light stands in the ballpark as daylight transitions to night. It’s a magical time of day, all permutations of light going on. With the sky behind the lights, you can create your own middle tones. You can create a lot of visual drama.”

With two months down and three to go until the season ends, “Bull City Summer” is still taking shape as it approaches the halfway point. It’s a long season, and burnout is a potential problem. Meantime, everyone involved is getting used to puzzled looks from people watching them work. Whatever comes out of this will be less a sports documentary than an art project.

“When artists go out and do their own thing, you don’t get a cookie-cutter approach,” Hunter said. “You might think that photographing baseball should be about the players, but maybe not. I went to shoot some Devil Rays spring-training games this spring, and they had no idea what to do with me. They just wanted to stick me in the photography well by the dugout and I had to tell them, ‘No, that’s not what I’m here to do.’ Sports people just don’t understand that. But we’re having a great time with it.”

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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