New York-based photojournalist David Burnett had just turned 70 in 2017 when he got the news that he had won the Greenfield Prize—a $30,000 commission administered by the Hermitage Artist Retreat that gives each recipient the time (and money) to create a new piece of music, a play, a series of paintings, or in this case a photography exhibit that will premiere at the Ringling Museum on April 13.
Burnett has earned numerous international awards for his photographs of the world’s top amateur athletes while covering a dozen Summer and Winter Olympic Games since 1984. His photographs have been published in Time, Life, National Geographic and many other publications. (You can see some of them at davidburnett.com.) He was named one of the “100 Most Important People in Photography” by American Photo magazine, and in 2018 received the Sprague Award for Lifetime Achievement from the National Press Photographers Association.
Now he’s turned his camera lens on senior athletes in their 70s, 80s and even 90s, “photographing everything from ice hockey to granny basketball,” he says. He’s captured senior athletes in Alabama, California, New Jersey, upstate New York, at a boxing gym in Brooklyn and at the Huntsman World Senior Games in Utah, and at the Senior Softball USA Championship in Las Vegas, where some 14,000 people competed.
These photos will be featured at the Ringling Museum April 13–July 21 in his exhibit Fourth Quarter: Senior Athletes and Their Indomitable Spirit. “You start to think of age as a very arbitrary way of measuring our lives when you see the way these senior athletes attack the field of play,” Burnett says. “It’s inspiring, it’s exciting, and it’s a lot of fun.”
After covering everything from the Vietnam War to the coup in Chile, Burnett himself is still in the game at 72. He’s hoping to cover the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 and planning a project with the shots he took 50 years ago for Time of the Apollo 11 launch that landed the first man on the moon.
“As a photojournalist, you’re always looking for a story to tell,” he says. “There are projects I want to do and pictures I want to take. One of my favorite shots is of 80- and 90-year-old hockey players sitting in their locker room. They’re full of so much inspiration; I want to put my skates on and skate with these guys.”