They all have a gritty, determined look about them —wanting to pull out that last ounce of effort to win out against fierce odds.
Twenty-seven amateur and professional athletes from the Merced area are pictured in Jay Sousa's "Face of an Athlete" photography exhibit on display through April 15 in the Downstairs Gallery at the Merced Multicultural Art Center on West Main Street.
The photo exhibit, in the works for more than a year, reflects Sousa's own determination for running, hiking and bicycling long distances in all kinds of weather and terrain conditions. He calls himself a "closet athlete" who loves sports and works out five or six days a week, running and biking on the outskirts of Merced or sometimes along rugged terrain in Yosemite, pushing himself to the limit of endurance.
More than 70 high school, college and professional athletes were photographed in Sousa's photo studio, with just over two dozen making the final cut into the exhibition.
"I know the dedication needed and how hard it is to go for a run in the cold," Sousa said. "I wanted this to show through the faces the dedication and hard work it takes."
Sousa thinks the exhibit came out great and he is very happy with the larger-than-life images that stare back with steely-eyed gazes at the visitor.
"I am happy with the way the show looks visually. I think it came out great. The whole look of it is a work of art," Sousa says.
The distinctive look of the athletes is achieved first by Sousa's studio lighting, then accented as the subjects are sprayed with glycerine to appear sweaty. Then post-production studio work adds to the look.
Twenty of the pictures measure 32 by 47 inches and seven others are 16 by 24 inches. Sousa says all of them are his favorites but a couple stand out as signature pieces.
One of the more intense is Livingston High School wrestler Ethan Dickey. Fresno mixed martial arts competitor Art Arcineaga strikes a fierce pose and the aura of a professional fighter comes through. El Capitan High School baseball player Braiden Ward also conveys the essence of how an athlete competes and wins.
Sousa, a 1979 California State University Fresno graduate in photojournalism, was a full-time photographer for the Merced Sun-Star from 1979-83 but left the news business to purchase a commercial photo studio in Merced. He also has taught photography classes for eight years at Merced College.
Cheryl Barnett, a full-time sculpture teacher at Merced College for 28 years, said Sousa gets rave reviews from his students. Barnett collaborated with Sousa for about 18 months when he owned a gallery in downtown Merced.
"You can count on Jay to do a good work," Barnett said. "I have grown fond of all the pieces he has done. This (exhibit) has quite an original theme I haven't seen before. He's fabulous in the studio and we are so fortunate at Merced College to have Jay Sousa."
Sousa said this is probably his seventh or eighth photo exhibit over the years. A commercial portrait photographer, he also is known for his landscape and mountain scenes.
Later this year he plans to start a new project but one in the same style as the athletes - photographing first responders. He said his exhibit has generated considerable interest in this style of photography and portraiture bookings have increased as well.
Sousa's photo exhibit is an outgrowth of his original plans to chronicle the bicycle racers who competed in Merced at the annual Merco Cycling Classic. That event ended in 2013 but Sousa realized he could do something compelling with athletes of all ages and different sports, including rodeo, bicycling, volleyball, basketball, football, soccer, wrestling and baseball.
"I had a huge response from people who wanted to be photographed," Sousa said. "It took on a life of its own. I put it on Facebook and it just took off; it snowballed."
People don't realize how hard it is for an athlete to stay in shape, Sousa said. He said all his athletic subjects had serious, "game face" looks on them. What he initially envisioned came out like he wanted.
The Multicultural Arts Center gallery at 645 W. Main St. is open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission is free.