|Anonymous press photo|
THERE'S SOMETHING INHERENTLY DRAMATIC ABOUT two men facing each other in the heat of a fight, in a small, defined space lit from above. The simplicity of those elements throws a fundamental human drive — the desire for physical domination and power — into high relief. “Boxing,” a photography exhibition presently on view at Paul Kopeikin Gallery, features 49 mostly black-and-white images, dating from the turn of the century to the present. Organized by Kopeikin with assistance from independent curator Pilar Graves, the exhibition covers all aspects of the sport — from the action in the ring to the faces in the crowd — in numerous photographic styles.
Many of the more recent images — works by Seena Sussman, John Goodman and Kimberly Gremillion — exploit the slow-motion out-of-focus poetics put forth so eloquently in Martin Scorsese's brilliant 1980 film, Raging Bull. Particularly keen on the blurry look is John Goodman, who documented the closing of a place greatly loved by the boxing community in his 1996 book The Times Square Gym. Conceived to evoke the atmosphere of training gyms, Goodman's pictures are impressionistic, lyrical, if a bit sentimental.
Long before Scorsese made Jake La Motta a household name was August Sanders' 1928 portrait of two clean-cut German boys, Boxers, executed in the classically austere style for which he's known. Also on view here are a pair of images by the late John Guttmann — one from 1937 of crudely rendered fighting graffiti on a street in San Francisco, the other of a class of little boys taking a boxing lesson in 1934 — that have a whimsical edge you'll find nowhere else in this show. Mary Ellen Mark's Seven Days in the Philippines, Manila, 1995 pictures two fighters in sparring gear, standing side by side and gazing into the camera, drenched in sweat; and Max Yavno's fabulous The Knockout is a 1977 long shot of a fight that shows it all: the crowd on its feet cheering, one man down and the other strutting around the ring in triumph.
Surprisingly, the work by these famous artists is outclassed by seven pictures from unidentified newspaper photographers who, undoubtedly, were simply cranking it out for this or that daily rag. These anonymous, undated wire photos have an incredible iconic power because they're unmediated straight reportage. One particularly stunning sepia-toned image shows a downed fighter with a referee leaning over him counting; the face of this beautiful young fighter is filled with confusion and pain, and part of what makes the picture so moving is the fact that his suffering failed to lead to wealth and glory.
The way fights are depicted, whether for journalistic or artistic purposes, appears not to have changed significantly over the century. The cast of characters hasn't changed much either — pictures about boxing are also pictures about race and class. Because America's great fighters have always hailed from its immigrant communities and underprivileged classes, boxing is a sport with a complex political subtext that was finally brought to the fore during the '60s by the great Muhammad Ali.
In boxing, there's Ali and there's everybody else. The most photographed fighter of the century, Ali simultaneously transformed boxing from a sport into an entertainment, while imbuing his victories with the political significance of his activities as a Black Muslim. Howard L. Bingham, who met Ali in L.A. in 1962 and has been a close friend of his ever since, shot many of the best images of this remarkably photogenic man. Bingham's vast archive is represented here with a 1962 image of Ali with Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis. Sugar Ray's hand rests affectionately on Ali's knee, and all three men look so sweet it's hard to believe they were capable of hitting anyone. Also included is a Bingham shot of Ali training in Miami the following year, and Niel Liefer's Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston, First Round Knockout, Lewiston, Maine, 1965. One of two color photographs included in the show (the other is by Robert Lyons), Liefer's is a spectacularly framed image of the magnificent Ali standing dead center in the ring, towering triumphantly over Liston, who's sprawled on the ground.
The surprise of the show is Charles Hoff. Known for his endlessly reproduced picture of the 1937 crash of the Hindenburg, Hoff, who died in 1975, was the sports photographer for the New York Daily News from the '30s through the '60s. Hoff captured the giants of boxing — Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Floyd Patterson, Jake La Motta — in harrowing close-ups that appear to have been taken from inside the ring. Hoff's pictures have a wonderfully romantic side as well, and hark back to an era when the world of organized crime still had a trace of glamour. We see those old wise guys in his pictures, sitting ringside in their expensive coats, struggling to look blasé as two men beat the crap out of each other a few yards in front of them. Pictures here by Henry Horenstein strike a similar nostalgic note; his photo from 1976, Boxing at the Harvard Club, Boston, Mass., captures the well-fed swells in their tuxedos, sitting at beautifully laid tables positioned around a boxing ring.
Fashion photographer Albert Watson contributes a terrifying shot of the back of Mike Tyson's neck, which has the monolithic indomitability of a column at Stonehenge, and Sylvia Plachy shows a 1987 portrait of promoter Don King's head framed in a halo of backlit hair. Also on view is another Plachy photo of King taken at Madison Square Garden in 1979; King's endlessly fascinating hair looks especially unkempt in this shot.
Plachy's are funny pictures in a show where the laughs are few and far between, for the fighters depicted here mostly seem sullen, sad and painfully aware that they're involved in a Darwinian mortification of the flesh. That knowledge binds them to one another, and men touch each other in the world of boxing with an ease you don't see anywhere else. Referees, doctors, trainers and the fighters themselves interact with one another with a kind of brokenhearted tenderness.
“Someday they're gonna write a blues song just for fighters,” observed 1962 heavyweight champ Sonny Liston, whose tragically difficult life ended in 1970 when he died of a heroin overdose. “It'll be for slow guitar, soft trumpet and a bell.”
“Boxing” is on view through September 4 at Paul Kopeikin Gallery, 138 N. La Brea Ave.; (323) 937-0765. Open Tuesday Saturday, 11 a.m.5:30 p.m.