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Why Old Sports Photos Often Have a Blue Haze

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Rich Clarkson’s photo of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then named Lew Alcindor, in the 1968 NCAA Men’s National Basketball Final Four semifinal game in Los Angeles is a masterpiece of composition, timing and exposure. The square format is the result of shooting the game action with a Hasselblad – a practice that continued into the early 2000s. But that isn’t what makes this photo historically interesting.

Rich Clarkson’s 1986 photo of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Rich Clarkson’s 1968 photo of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The blue haze that adds such a wonderful ambience to the arena is caused by cigarette smoke. The California Indoor Clean Air Act of 1976 was one of many regulations that started to clamp down on public smoking, and thus, we traded better light for better health. The same blue haze is evident in many historical boxing photos, like the ones made by Neil Leifer.

In 2006, then owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, Dr. Jerry Buss, pined for a more nostalgic look in the Staples Center. Thus, the lighting was focused onto the court with very little spill onto the arena seats. USA Today’s Robert Hanashiro captured the scene inside Staples center.

Mar 26, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels guard Joel Berry II (2) grabs a rebound against Wisconsin Badgers forward Frank Kaminsky (44) during the first half in the semifinals of the west regional of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at Staples Center. Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY Sports
Mar 26, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels guard Joel Berry II (2) grabs a rebound against Wisconsin Badgers forward Frank Kaminsky (44) during the first half in the semifinals of the west regional of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at Staples Center. Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY Sports

And a similar scene inside UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion.

Jan 11, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; UCLA Bruins guard Norman Powell (4) drives to the hoop between California Golden Bears guard Sam Singer (2) and Golden Bears forward David Kravish (45) during the second half at Pauley Pavilion. Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY Sports
Jan 11, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; UCLA Bruins guard Norman Powell (4) drives to the hoop between California Golden Bears guard Sam Singer (2) and Golden Bears forward David Kravish (45) during the second half at Pauley Pavilion. Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY Sports

The look is more dramatic than a fully illuminated areana, but certainly still lacks the panache of the smoke-filled past.


About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter, which regularly publishes resources for photographers. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article was also published here.

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