Sam Stephenson has been out to see a few Durham Bulls baseball games this season. But when he goes to Durham Bulls Athletic Park nowadays, his perspective is different from that of most fans. Having spent the 2013 season overseeing the “Bull City Summer” documentary project, now on concurrent display at Contemporary Art Museum and N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh, he can’t help but lament missed opportunities.
“I always think of things we didn’t get around to doing,” Stephenson said. “Like interviewing the umpires, who are at every game and have an inside view that others rarely get. There were a lot of things like that we missed. But there were some other things that could never have been anticipated. My other major projects have taken at least five years and involved materials that had existed for half-a-century. ‘Bull City Summer’ was creating archival material on the fly. The fact that it’s on gallery walls, in a film and in a book so soon after last season seems like a miracle to me.”
“Bull City Summer” is the follow-up to Stephenson’s last major project, the award-winning “Jazz Loft” – a 2009 documentary of eccentric photographer Eugene Smith’s obsessive chronicle of a jazz hangout in New York City during the 1950s. As noted by Stephenson, “Bull City Summer” came together at the speed of light compared withthe 12 years that “Jazz Loft” took.
Just under a half-million people attend Bulls home games every season. That makes the team one of the Triangle’s top attractions, and the games are something of a tourist destination. As one of the essays in the “Bull City Summer” book points out, the rhythm of minor-league baseball is such that the stands start to empty out long before the game is over most nights. For many attendees, Bulls games are less sporting event than cultural experience.
Such a setting offers myriad stories to tell beyond what happens on the field. For every Bulls home game during the 2013 season, around a half-dozen members of Stephenson’s team were in the ballpark, observing and documenting scenes in the stands as well as on the field. Between the photographers’ images, video work by Ivan Weiss and elegant essays by Adam Sobsey and other writers, “Bull City Summer” is a multimedia experience that includes a coffee-table book and 90-minute film in addition to an exhibit showing at the two museums (the film is also on display at CAM).
Cast of characters
“It’s the most collaborative project I’ve ever worked on,” said CAM director Marjorie Hodges. “By the time Sam’s team was done, they had so much beautiful work that NCMA did not have room for it all. We’re nimble enough that we could move some things around to accommodate it, and show things like the film part of it.”
As presented in “Bull City Summer,” Durham Bulls Athletic Park is a community unto itself. Public figures of note include “Ballpark Mayor” Jatovi McDuffie, who handles on-field announcing between innings; the fatherly Ben Ward, who used to give his favorite players home-baked goods before he died last December; and super-fans Bobbie and Marvin Wheeler, who have been at almost every Bulls game since 1981.
“I really like the concept of converging on a subject with a team of artists and not giving them assignments, but letting them find their own way within the framework of a subject,” Stephenson said. “That’s really compelling, and I want to keep doing it. There’s a very predictable way that journalism covers sports, and ‘Bull City Summer’ tried to turn that upside down and not have any deadlines. I’d like to try the same approach with politics, too. Documenting a legislative session this way could be fascinating.”
Throughout the exhibit as well as the book, the photographs are striking, especially the work of Kate Joyce and Frank Hunter. Joyce, who usually shoots commercial architecture in her hometown of Chicago, plunged into the project, even though she knew nothing about baseball.
Images of fan art, sky
Stephenson described Joyce’s work ethic as “relentless,” and she attended about 60 games during the project. She captured some idiosyncratically poetic images that only a non-baseball fan would have even noticed, such as a mosaic of bubblegum wrappers that bullpen pitchers had turned into makeshift lawn darts.
As for Hunter, he approached Durham Bulls Athletic Park as if it were a natural landscape, creating stunning photos of the surrounding skies.
“It took Frank Hunter a long time to find himself in the stadium,” Stephenson said. “He’s really a landscape photographer, so he treated the stadium like a lake, valley or river. Frank is almost like a painter, seeing landscapes nobody else sees and revealing them with his camera. It took him most of the season to figure out. But that’s how art works. It takes a tremendous amount of effort and repetition to reach that higher level, just like baseball.”