Around 14 years ago, the photographer Bill Bamberger came across a basketball hoop in Nags Head, North Carolina, while he was driving down the coast in his home state. There wasn’t anything particularly special about it, but he liked how the yellow of the hoop post matched the bright shutters on the rental house next to it, and he liked that he could see the hoop as part of the coastal landscape. As he traveled around the U.S. and abroad for work, he began taking more images of the same type of courts: Free of people, and fully immersed in their local context.
Most of Bamberger’s work focuses on people and communities; one of his most well-known series, Closing, documents workers in the final days of a furniture factory in Mebane, North Carolina. Photographing basketball hoops “was a chance to do something different, but still about the world we live in,” Bamberger says. Rather than focusing on displays of athleticism or personality, as most sports-related photography does, Bamberger’s images speak to the places surrounding the hoops. Often, to get the perfect shot of the still court, Bamberger would visit the hoops at odd hours. Or, as he did at a church playground in Naples, Italy, he’d bring his camera over to the players and show them other photographs to explain his project; they’d clear out for water break and give him a couple of minutes to capture the scene.
Bamberger is the first to admit he’s not the only photographer with a fascination with basketball courts, and indeed, not even the only one who photographs them without people. But while artists like Ward Roberts, who captures calming images of pastel playgrounds around the world, are interested more in the design and the aesthetics, Bamberger likes the local cues that support and surround the hoops he finds.
In rural Kentucky, for instance, a hoop rises out of a patch of grass, and two plastic chairs sit on either side of it. Looking at the scene, you can imagine what it feels like to sit in those rickety chairs–a staple of backyard barbecues–and maybe imagine the kids who move them out of the way to practice layups on the small hoop. Bamberger photographs hoops tacked onto barns in rural America, and in church playgrounds in Italy and Rwanda. In Portland, Oregon, he spotted one stuck onto the side of a grain silo. “Everywhere we look, there are basketball hoops,” Bamberger says, “and everywhere they manifest themselves, they’re different.” In Sedona, Arizona, Red Rock State Park peeks out in the distance behind a court. You try to envision what it’s like to focus on hitting free-throws with those cliffs in your line of sight.
To Bamberger, hoops don’t interrupt the landscape of a place, but rather make it easier to see and to situate yourself within. Basketball is one of those universal sports, like soccer, where the rules don’t change too much from place to place, and how to play is commonly understood. For people who love the sport (like Bamberger), or even those who don’t but may have grown up with a hoop stuck up in their driveway or on a nearby post, basketball courts can be a familiar entrance to an unfamiliar place.
It’s that idea, of how basketball courts intersect with the communities and places around them, that brought Bamberger’s work to the NBM, which will be hosting a series of HOOPS images beginning in March. In recent years, NBM has displayed an exhibit on Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted, and developed a show on housing design to address both changing population needs and affordability. If an array of global basketball courts seems like the one thing that’s not like the others, it’s not, Bamberger says. The hoops he captures are planned features of a community or a home, and ones that bring people together in a way that’s understood across contexts. “Hoops are ubiquitous in the world, and you look at one long enough or if it’s placed in an interesting place, it becomes a statement of commentary about a community or a place, and what unites us around this common sport,” he says.