The photographs on display as part of “Forty: The Sabres in the NHL” exhibit at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery aren’t accompanied by placards identifying the players or even the date of the particular game that’s been captured. There’s also no memorabilia on view — no jerseys, pads, sticks or programs. Just four decades of the Buffalo Sabres through the eyes of three photographers: Ron Moscati, Robert Shaver (who sadly passed away shortly before the exhibit opened) and Bill Wippert.
This is not a lesson in history. It’s a lesson in art.
Sure, the photographs depict the shared history of Buffalo — of the fans, the team, the Knox family — but the photographers whose works are featured and Maria Scully-Morreale, interim head of marketing, corporate and public relations, hope that visitors to the gallery get a little something more.
“We’re inviting people to start to look and maybe they’ll stop and look at works of art in the same way. Maybe they’ll start a relationship with the visual arts,” Scully-Morreale said.
The hope is that Sabres fans who might not be inclined to visit a museum otherwise will come in for the sports, but stay for the art. Scully-Morreale describes the exhibit as a “pathway” to connect patrons to the rest of the museum.
The very staircase that leads to the hockey exhibit space is a work of art in its own right: The Sol LeWitt Scribble Wall Drawing is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Sixteen artists used graphite to doodle directly onto the gallery walls that surround the staircase, leaving it with a burnished-steel look, a nod to the city’s history.
Entering the exhibit, visitors are greeted with 40 years of Sabres memories arranged in the salon style with photographs stacked high along the gallery walls. There’s little rhyme or reason to much of the arrangement, old is mixed with new, color with black and white. The smaller galleries that shoot off from the main space seem to be assembled with themes in mind — fans, fights and goalies — and are accompanied by short documentaries with interviews from Rob Ray, Jim Playfair and the like.
One of the highlights of the collection is the video installation “NHL in 360°,” a multimedia experience that also includes audio. The audio and video was shot by cameras and microphones attached to the top of players’ helmets during a preseason game. What results is an up-close experience of the game that’s more real-to-life than any first-person hockey video game.
More than 200 photos make up the retrospective, but that’s nothing compared to the thousands of images originally submitted by the photographers. Moscati, former photographer for the Courier-Express and The Buffalo Evening News, says he provided the gallery with more than 20,000 negatives alone.
Moscati’s photographs document the early years of the Sabres organization, all the way back to its inception.
“When (the Albright-Knox) tried to go back to do the history of the Sabres, they needed photos from the early years. I’m like a voice out there screaming don’t forget the beginning and I think this time the art gallery did remember the beginning,” Moscati said.
He says he’s glad he held on to the decades worth of negatives even when Toronto came calling, asking to include them in the Hockey Hall of Fame’s collection.
“I thought they belonged to Buffalo and to the Sabres because it was their history.”
Wippert, team photographer and full-time staff photographer for The Buffalo News, wanted to show Buffalonians a little Sabres history that maybe they weren’t so familiar with. He bypassed photos that had “been seen forever” in favor of some that he felt either depicted a significant moment in the team’s past or had artistic merit.
Wippert explained that it was always important for him to lend an artistic touch to his photos and points to a particular shot in the exhibit of current goalie Ryan Miller
walking down a heavily shadowed hallway:
“That (photo) seemed to get a lot of people coming up to me saying, ‘It doesn’t even look like a hockey photo, it looks like a work of art.’ I’m proud of that — taking something mundane and making something neat,” Wippert said.
And both photographers would like visitors to realize just that — that sports photography belongs in a museum too, if the viewer broadens their understanding of art enough.
“There are all sorts of photographs out there ... landscape, portraits ... this is just a different type of photo. Just like any type of photography, it doesn’t have to be for everybody,” Wippert said.
Moscati agrees that sports photography has a place in the artistic world.
“There are good artists and bad artists. If you’re a good artist, you should be good enough to be in an art gallery. For photographers to show emotion ... it’s the same as seeing other art that shows emotion. You want to show a picture that brings out some kind of emotion in people, whether it’s to laugh, or be sad, or cry,” Moscati said.
Despite making strong cases for their work to be deserving of such recognition, both men expressed the honor they feel to be showcased in their hometown gallery.
“When I had to speak at the microphone for the press conference, I teared up. I’m Italian, I’m emotional, and to remember all those times and now I’m up in the Albright-Knox, that’s a big deal,” Moscati said.
“Forty: The Sabres in the NHL” is on view at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo through Jan. 9. The Stanley Cup will make a special appearance at the gallery Jan. 2 to 5 to coincide with the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championships, which will be hosted Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Buffalo.