“I never want to see another picture of ________.” Industry veterans share their pet peeves on themes in contemporary photography. In this series they present their “rule” along with five photographs that break the rule in an effort to show that great work is the exception to the rule.
I never want to see another photograph of boxers. What is it about photographers and boxing? It seems to me that every photographer, at some point along the way, turns their attention to boxers, the art of boxing, or the spectacle of the boxing ring. I’d be the first to admit that I am the predictably un-sportsy, artsy type (and a woman for what that brings to the discussion) and that boxing itself holds zero appeal for me, so I’ve always held back on confessing to this mental wall of disinterest. But the boxing photographs keep coming up in portfolio reviews, books, personal projects, documentary work, and fine art. Commercial and fine art photographers alike, they love the boxers! In a situation where I must provide feedback about the work, I’ll usually search for qualities of the imagery, or features of the boxers that I can speak to, possibly offer some bit of (slightly lame) feedback, and hope that I don’t get called out on my prejudice, or even more abashedly, how my lack of interest and knowledge might be tied to the fact I am a woman. At times I enjoy the challenge, having to dive into something completely foreign is always a good exercise, and photographs are my portal to learning about many things completely unknown to me…but please, no more boxers. Or dancers, but I’ll save dancer photographs for another post.
So, with that off my shoulder, I can move on to the rest of the confession: last year I absolutely fell in love with a project by Jona Frank, an extended profile of young boxers in a small gym, in a small community, outside of Liverpool, England. Perhaps I was already biased towards liking the series, having known of and admired Frank’s work for many years. Frank lived and worked in San Francisco in the late 1990s and I think I first saw her photographs of teenagers at Southern Exposure and SF Camerawork around that time. Those were simple portraits, at a first glance, but they were surprisingly arresting. Frank is a Portraitist, and possesses that specialized talent of capturing something about people that goes beneath and beyond exteriors. Around the same time I was also interested in Lauren Greenfield’s work with teens in Los Angeles, and there was definitely an overlap in the two artists’ work. I love both bodies of work but while Lauren Greenfield works with a strong documentary spirit, Frank’s work was something else. Her photographs hummed with a strong, sculptural solidity that reminded me of August Sander’s photographs, both tapping into our fascination with the typology aspect of portraiture. Frank explored the people of her youthful landscape with an alluring, entirely contemporary palette of bright colors and the whimsical quality of teenage fashions and gestures. She has continued working in this style, letting one subject lead to the next, systematically following a narrow band of youth culture in the United States as she moved from teens, to high school, to ROTC, to teens with religious and far right beliefs.
Which brought her to Modern Kids, as her series about the boxers is titled, published as a book in 2015. Modern Kids shows Frank continuing to hone in on her youthful subjects with an increasingly simplified, penetrating vision. One can sense the intensity with which she sees her subjects and the precision of her vision. All of the work was created with a 4 x 5 camera and the slowness this format prescribed on the process meant the photographer had to make all of her decisions before the boxers took position in front of the camera. The photographs shown here with titles indicating training were made during workouts. Those with the gym name were taken immediately after a fight, meaning the photographer’s control was mediated by the utter spontaneity of the moment, when the boxers’ own projection of themselves was stripped away by utter exhaustion and pain. The boxers’ combative stance, combined with their own strong desire to project an image of themselves into the world, provides the perfect match for Frank’s own fight to get to the essence of her subjects. This stark, aggressive clarity is what I love about the photographs. They are so emotive, yet nothing is actually happening. It is all potential energy. I am entranced by the simultaneous sense of both urgency and calm; action posed in stillness. The photographs are striking, and in this manner parallel the attacking energy the young boxers aim to project, to manifest in their practice. The photographer herself—as a woman, a photographer, and an American—must have begun this project feeling as much the outsider as I always do when looking at photographs of boxers. Yet she pushes through and delivers such a level of intimacy that for the first time I think I understand both what boxing and what photographing boxing is about, at least on some level: the vulnerability, the frankness, of relying on individual strength and agility, and belief in oneself.