Charter school playground, Harlem, New York, 2007.

Arts & Entertainment

At NorthPark Center, Courtside: Photographs by Bill Bamberger Shows Humanity Through Hoops

The exhibition features photos of basketball courts, but it's about much more than that.

It would be wrong to dismiss the photographs of Bill Bamberger as easily understood. On the surface, his pictures are nothing more than basketball hoops. While the locations and scenery changes, they’re just rims, 10 feet in the air, with a backboard. Yet, the exhibition Courtside: Photographs by Bill Bamberger, now on view at NorthPark Center, is much more. The pictures, and the physical location of the show, delve into our humanity and our relation to place.

Tucked into a little-trafficked foyer near Jonathan Borofsky’s Five Hammering Men, the exhibition sits beyond the noise and hustle of the mall. More than 20 large inkjet prints make up the show, which was curated by undergraduate students at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. The work represents a small segment of the 13-year series that Bamberger began in 2004.

Backyard, rural Kentucky, 2008

Devoid of people, Bamberger’s photographs elicit a sense of isolation. In this quiet corner of the mall, the exhibition has a fittingly intimate space to unfold. The photographs themselves are simplistic – a hoop, sometimes a court, perhaps a structure, and little else. They’re alluring and, at times, picturesque. Without looking at the title card, most scenes are reminiscent of freeze-frame Americana. There’s more to them, though.

Their details speak about their environment. More than permeating potential energy that the hoops imply – children playing, laughter, shouting, the sound of leather on cement, chains jangling and nylon rustling – even in a rural setting, the pictures convey a sense of modernity. Basketball can represent the frenzied commotion of life and the sounds of the street. But at its most basic level, it is a respite and escape in the form of play. Wherever they are, the hoops and communities give insight to one another.

“Look at the way [the hoop] manifests itself,” Bamberger says. “It’s like a perfectly organized design structure or premise and yet every place it’s sited it looks different. And it’s different based on the people who inhabit that community, who installed those hoops, who build around it.”

Church playground, Kinihira, Rwanda, 2013

What began as an effort to capture American society quickly turned global. Through his travels, Bamberger stumbled across hoops around the globe. The series contains thousands of photographs taken in 38 states and nine countries. Not all are represented in the show. However, hoops from South Africa, Guatemala, Indonesia, and other countries are featured. They highlight basketball’s growing global prominence and its ability to not only create a place, but to define it.

“You can take any object that’s ubiquitous in the world,” Bamberger says, “and when you look at it in its context or setting, it speaks as much to the place that it inhabits and how it manifests itself in that place as it does to the object itself.”

Public school playground, Sedona, Arizona, 2009

The same can be said of the exhibition space. Sandwiched between the Burberry and Louis Vuitton stores at NorthPark, the gallery feels as though it may be swallowed by its neighbors. Their bright, flashy signage reflects off the glass covering Bamberger’s photographs. The effect transplants the stylized images of models into the pictures of the courts. The effect is almost unsettling, although it’s seemingly as natural as product placement in a movie. In this manner, it captures Americana almost too perfectly.

NorthPark is renowned for its art collection. Raymond and Nancy Nasher made sure of that. At its core, though, it’s still a mall. While the collection is replete with some of the great artists of the 20th and 21st centuries—Jim Dine, Antony Gormley, KAWS, Iván Navarro, Mark di Suvero, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol, among others—the art can feel lost and relegated to the background. Guests flit by, often ambivalent to these works. Relegated to their quiet corner, the same is true for Bamberger’s photographs. Here, commerce is the main attraction and art is the side dish.

There has always been a Jekyll and Hyde duality to NorthPark. Its strides toward high culture don’t go unnoticed, but are usually overshadowed by the beast of commerce. That doesn’t take away from Bamberger’s work, though. His photographs capture a glimpse of our united humanity through sport. Basketball is as much America’s game as it is a global game. But basketball is also commerce, and NorthPark has that covered. The Nike store is just around the corner.

Courtside: Photographs by Bill Bamberger is on display from now until January 1, 2019.