The first cameras that were able to produce images worthy of viewing were messy, room-sized contraptions that worked about 10% of the time the user attempted a shot. He'd wait a week, re-organize the device, and pray that this time it worked. Flash forward a thousand years of so, and gone are the camera obscure, pin holed aspects of photography. Welcome to the digital age where every a phone comes equipped with a photographic device and every user fancies himself a professional. Lost in the Flickr induced frenzy are the real professionals who've honed their craft, put in hours of tinkering, and proved that really good photography is rare, beautiful, and a very special festival for the eyes.
Sports photography seems to be a dying commodity. The YouTube world with which we now find ourselves is fraught with moving images that seem to overpower the still shots that enraptured us in the years gone by. But when you really look closely, invest the time to get lost in still photos of great caliber, something magical happens. Suddenly, the still tells a story. Whether it's s twisted knee, a goaltenders steely eyed focus, or a fan enjoying lighter side of the game (and maybe a beverage too many), the storytelling in photographs demands your attention. Well beyond the glitz of a HD graphics, shiny tv adverts, and flip board scoring attention grabbers, lies a photo that begs you to dig deeper.
On a slightly chilled early December night, I entered the Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City, to take in a hockey game from a slightly different perspective than ever before. Arriving an hour and a half before the puck dropped, I caught up with Rob Ferguson. A name you may not recognize, but who is known more widely through his stellar photography. Rob, a local Oklahoma photographer who's gifted us fantastic images of fights, goalie saves, and scoring chances, was positioned rinkside near the visiting team's tunnel. Between him and the ice is only a thin layer of plexiglass, and arguably the best seat in the house. Armed with his Nikon D-3, Rob invited me into his world for a few hours. I wanted nothing more than to observe, and then absorb what it is that makes a great photo indeed great.
"Oklahoma City is my studio," says Ferguson when asked about the business side of snapping photos. "I've done sessions in some pretty amazing places - airplane hangers, abandoned buildings, and more." But for Rob Ferguson, the most joy comes from his work he does with the Barons. "I primarily take photos that get used for advertising so I have a tendency to look for specific things on the ice," he says, "my ideal shot is a closeup of a goaltender, focused in on the puck, as it approaches his net." His photos have been draped on the side of the Cox Center in large scale form, featured on billboards along the busiest OKC highways, and probably are featured on your pocket calendar collecting lint in your pocket as we speak. His work is poignant, emotional, and timely - Rob epitomizes a great photogapher.
The snapping away at games comes from Rob's deep passion for hockey in general. As a resident of Oklahoma for nearly his lifetime, Rob has hockey in his blood. "I remember attending my first Oklahoma Stars game, and since then I've been hooked," states Ferguson proudly, "I followed the Blazers, and now the Barons. Hockey is just something I love." Even moreso, away from the Barons home barn, Rob has his hands in other Oklahoma hockey offerings. As an assistant coach for the Squirt B Oklahoma City Oil Kings, with whom his son is a goaltender, he continues pouring his love of hockey into others. "I coached a few years with former Blazers, Peter Robertson, and it was great," says Ferguson intently, "Peter moved on to another squad, and I remained coaching, but with an older group. My son fell in love with goaltending, and as a parent, it's hard seeing him let in bad ones or have an off night. In the end it's all worth it."
Rob's night began a few hours before even I arrived, as he meets the rest of the Barons production team for a meeting. In this meeting, Rob is given the go-ahead on specific photographic needs of the night. Perhaps it's a new sponsor or a person who's won the opportunity to ride the Zamboni, Rob has it covered.
Tonight the Barons are hosting the San Antonio Rampage who have become a shell of their former selves. They are depleted by call ups and injuries, but willing to play a tough game against the Barons. Rob tells me, "The best place for the perfect shot is as the defenders are coming through the gap. The angle of the glass and its puck scuffs make it difficult to shoot," says Rob, "but we can get some great shots."
I point out the lack of a camera hole and immediately get a sigh accompanied with a smile. The game wears on, Alex Plante has his token fisticuffs around the bench area, David LeNeveu has one of the best goaltending nights as a Baron, and the pace is fast and furious. Rob continues to snap. "On a given night I shoot around 300-400 pictures," says Ferguson of his spiffy camera, "which totals nearly 180 GB of photos a year. There are other photographers that shoot 5x that many, but I'm picky." And being picky is what makes his photos so great. "I allow a little bit of motion blur in my images so that it gives the shots some life," he continues, "that's just the way I like to do it." And we all benefit from his perfectionist nature.
As a fan of hockey in general, I've tried to shoot photos inside of hockey rinks and the results were brutal. Too dark,
too light, out of focus - it's hard work. "It's about perspective and good, old-fashioned hard work," mentions Ferguson, "You have to practice, sometimes with trial and error, to get good at capturing the best moments." He draws parallels to the development of the Barons and the minor league hockey system, "Like the players, I too continue to work on my skills, getting better with time, and sometimes a little luck".
As the visiting Rampage lumber out of the black-clothed tunnel, I hear Nolan Yonkman mumble something like "let's get this", and a few players respond with colorful inflection. It's at this moment, that I realize that this is indeed the best seat in the house. I've sat glass side before, but standing on the same footing as the players is a whole different experience. The perspective of their size and strength is unreal. At 6' 2" I feel feeble next to the giants gliding on the ice. The game seems more complex, more irrational, and ultimately more exciting from the photographers perch. And although I've stood alongside the Plante's of the world before, somehow standing on their turf is an enlightening experience.
As we talk briefly about the game and things technical, I can't help but notice the familial scene taking place around the glass. From a small hockey community in Oklahoma comes some of the greatest connections of friendship. Rob introduces me to several folks around the visiting pit including an Oklahoma City police officer, fellow photographers, and even AHL representatives. They all know Rob, his work, but most importantly his love of the game. "I realize I have a unique view of the game, but the closeness of the Barons staff and the fans is great. They've really made some progress in the two years that they've been in Oklahoma City" says Rob proudly. And this is something that means the world to hockey organizations. When a sense of community is built, felt, and shared it becomes more than just hockey.
Whether Rob Ferguson is taking photos at a Barons event, or he's coaching the Oklahoma City youth hockey Oil Kings, you know that the passion for the frozen sport is rampant. He kindly invites me to the Monday, 7:30 "Old Guys" hockey game that is played on the same Cox Center ice where the Barons battle on Fridays and Saturdays. "We aren't very good," says Rob of these games, "but we have fun." It's hard not to find his spirit contagious. He's as well liked as his photos are well positioned.
Snapping the game of hockey is a technical showcase of your talent. Some have the gift
and man hours to give us really solid examples of their work. For Rob the sum of his passion for the game multiplied by his natural, gifted perspective on things, divided by his desire to hone his craft, equals some great moments captured for the rest of us to enjoy for years. The videos of our Barons and Oilers prospects will come and go, but it's the photographs that still speak a thousand words. And for people like Rob Ferguson, as long as there is hockey in Oklahoma City, there he'll be, rinkside, armed with his camera, and a love of the game.
A huge thanks to Rob Ferguson for allowing me to follow along at the Barons last home game. His photos, featured throughout this post, can be purchased in many fashions over at the OKC Hockey Photos site (www.okchockeyphotos.com). Help support his great work!