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Here’s To Bob Nightengale, The Last Avant-Garde Baseball Photographer

You can kind of make out some mascots in this photo, by USA Today reporter Bob Nightengale
Image via Twitter

The fact that there is no way to take a good spring training photo, which is a fact, does not mean that the state of play in spring training photos has not improved. Spring Training Photography was once the most depraved visual art in existence, and just what it sounds like: beat writers taking photos through chain link fences or panes of Plexiglas of what might or might not have been baseball players standing around 105 yards away and then posting them online, for weeks. This annual orgy of fryolated visual fuzz and Florida-scented inertia managed to both underline and somehow worsen the protracted insignificance of spring training itself. There was a Tumblr and everything.

In some sense, these photos could be said to have worked as pieces of art, and their failures as literal visualizations of like Todd Coffey and Drew Storen doing a hurdler’s stretch—which were both conceptual (you do not need to take a photo of that) and formal (it’s not even a legible photo of that, both dudes look like Rothko canvasses, etc.)—were actually successes in terms of how instantly they evoked a certain peevy agitation in the beholder. But in another, more specific sense these photos landed somewhere between atrocity and taunt, as reminders of just how much bleary boring nonsense stood before even the first meaningless games of the actual baseball season. “This is what you love to look at,” Spring Training Photography jeered. “Two more weeks of Ben Revere practicing his fucking bunts.”

These photos are still out there, but the combination of much-improved phone camera technology and a certain creeping self-awareness on the part of the nation’s baseball media has sapped them of their old power. There is still no reason to look at a photo of various baseball guys hanging around and yawning and stretching, but now that the photos arrive in higher quality, there is even less reason to do so. The aesthetic perversity of those old photos, taken as they were through batting cages and what appeared to be generous applications of honey or peanut butter or smudgy hot dog fingerprints, has been replaced with cleaner edges and notably less crispy pixels. The one interesting and artistic thing about them is gone.

Unless, that is, you are in the hands of a master.

Most baseball fans know USA Today’s Bob Nightengale as an oft-wrong scoopsmith who regularly also finds himself, out of checked-out hackery or pure beat-sweetening calculation, carrying water for MLB owners in their long and stupid war against the players and for your more crusty-minded retired MLB players in their equally stupid and equally long war against people playing baseball today. (And also for Thom Brennaman.) Nightengale’s unique photographic stylings are merely something he throws in for free. His work is not always quite as aggressively avant-garde as the probably-wasn’t-supposed-to-be-a-video above, but it is always distinctive.

Where some of the past worst offenders in the field of Spring Training Photography could solve their aesthetic issues simply by using a proper digital camera, Nightengale’s could not. Give him a decent DSLR camera and he would just figure out a way to use it to receive a phone call from an incensed Goose Gossage.

There is a long tradition of online speculation about what kind of phone/daguerreotype Nightengale is using to take these photos, but while everything about Nightengale’s uniquely pixelated online presence suggests the possibility that some George W. Bush–era Motorola product is involved, I think the issue lies elsewhere.

From time to time, Nightengale will post a non-blurry image that suggests the presence of both a decently contemporary phone and a photographer who is not experiencing a severe private earthquake. Usually, Nightengale is close to the subject of those photographs. It’s when he gets to fiddling with the old touch screen that things get visually daring.

The issue, as I see it, is twofold. The first is that Bob Nightengale is often far enough away from his subjects that he needs to zoom in all the way; the second is that Bob Nightengale is always inclined to post the botched result.

As it happens, those are the necessary conditions of Spring Training Photography: both the distance from the “action” that forces beat writers into bizarre aesthetic choices and the simple poor judgment that ensures the results somehow still wind up online.

This, in the end, is The Bob Nightengale Difference. Spring Training Photography is temporary, seasonal, unchosen; they are the pictures that non-photographers take, under wildly imperfect conditions, because they can’t think of anything else to do. The form’s practitioners, like the players stretched blearily on those spring fields, are just passing through. Nightengale, as a visual artist, is not. He inhabits that space all year, every year. It is his home.