PHILADELPHIA — Just to the right of grand staircase leading up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art is perhaps the most frequently visited attraction in this part of the city. Thomas Schomberg’s “Rocky” statue (1982), which was placed in this location in 2006, after a period in front of the Philadelphia Spectrum, seems to have an endless line of people waiting to take a photo during peak tourist season.
Larry Fink: The Boxing Photographs, on exhibit in the museum’s Perelman building, seems a fitting extension of this cultural interest. Fink’s project started in 1986, when he was assigned to shoot photos for a story on Jimmy Jacobs, who was Mike Tyson’s manager at the time. Initially uninterested in boxing, Fink became hooked on exploring this world of grand ambitions and human vanity. He continued to photograph boxers until 2004 in grimy training gyms, such as Champs in Philadelphia and the legendary Blue Horizon in North Philadelphia.
Considering the proximity of the “Rocky” statue to Fink’s intimate, sweaty photos, I expected greater than average interest. But every time I saw the exhibition, many visitors either skipped or breeze through it. A polished statue of Sylvester Stallone is a stark contrast to photos of blood and sweat on swollen, often African American faces.
As Bert Sugar, one of the sport’s preeminent commentators, writes, “Boxing has never sought its enlistees from the debutante line at the local country club.” Fink’s photographs make this clear in their behind-the-scenes depictions of boxing. The only glamour in the photos on view is a shot of a sharply dressed Eddie Murphy and one of a “ring girl” from the 1991 Tyson-Ruddock fight in Las Vegas. (In boxing parlance, ring girls are the women in short skirts that hold cue cards announcing the rounds.)
These images represent the glitz of televised pay-per-view boxing. But Sugar also notes that boxing is historically a site of underclass assimilation, where the dominant “we” comes to terms with “them.” In boxing’s early days, during the late 19th century, Irish immigrants were the major talents. Anglo America, already deeply invested in rejecting African Americans, applied the same pressures and prejudices to the Irish, so boxing became a means for upward mobility. Today, as boxing’s audience shrinks, professional sports such as football and basketball fulfill the idea that one can escape disenfranchisement with athletic talent. The major fighters have tended to shift according to the minority group that Anglos were rejecting at the moment. After the Irish, boxing’s prominent players shifted from Italian to African American, and then to Hispanic in the 1950s and 1960s.
Amid this cultural history, Fink’s photographs have an air of spiritual devotion, as if they are yearning towards the status of religious icons. All the photographs are in black and white. The line of sight follows either an upward or downward gaze, making viewers aware of the distance between themselves and figure in the image. Fink, who studied with “street photography” pioneer Lisette Model at the New School for Social Research, considers himself the subject of his photographs and the people or things in the image to be the object. In his view, all photographs are filtered through the photographer’s subjectivity.
In a photo from June 1993, at Castlehill, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a trainer appears to be applying salve to a fighter’s head. It mirrors the Catholic tradition of rubbing an ash cross on one’s foreheads on Ash Wednesday. The trainer’s hand on the boxer’s upturned head displays the gentle care that a priest might show for the faithful. This is a world of profound melancholy. There seem to be shadows everywhere — in faces and on walls, floors, and trophies.
The boxers and trainers in the photos are often unnamed; their faces are rarely in full light. They are either on their way to a defeat or a victory. Certainly, they are always on their way to suffering. One photo from the Blue Horizon, January 1989, shows two fighters locked in an exhausted embrace against the ropes, while a referee tries to separate them.
There is no shortage of machismo in these images. That’s part and parcel with a sport that’s based on pummeling your opponent’s body. But Fink also lays bare the deep level of homosocial intimacy in the world of boxing. Trainers perform what appear to be near-religious acts of devotion for boxers, as well as towelling off their blood and sweat, holding buckets for the athletes to spit in. Likewise, training partners allow boxers to punch them over and over in the name of potential success.
In his introduction to Boxing, his book of photographs, Fink refers to Katherine Dunne’s appraisal of what goes on in a boxing gym. It is a place, she writes, “where men are allowed to be kind to one another. Anyone there will gently wipe off another man’s face with a towel […]. There is no shadow of impropriety, no question of motive.” This is only possible, she notes, because of “one magical ingredient of the game: the gloves.” One is rendered nearly helpless in “bulky” and “fingerless” gloves. The complexity of this level of intimacy is lost in the simplistic view of masculinity seen in pay-per-view broadcasts.
The exhibition also includes a few images of female boxers. Out of all major sports, boxing (along with football) seems to put up the most cultural resistance to women’s participation. In one photo, from February 1995, a lean woman, her face projecting deep concentration, is just finishing a punch on a training pad held by her male trainer. Amid so many hypermasculine images, the photos of women stand out, resonating today in ways that Fink may not have intended.
Unlike what we see in the Rocky films, Fink’s realist work does not imply a narrative of success. He captured his subjects in the midst of their careers as boxers and trainers, and gives no indications of their lives before or after. Whether they went on to have great triumphs or profound defeats, these photographic images exalt the actions of these people, be they violent or caretaking. In this regard, I am compelled to see these images as devotional icons. But as with any such image, belief comes down to whether we have faith in the depicted faith or not.
Larry Fink: The Boxing Photographs continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Perelman Building, 2525 Pennsylvania Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through January 1, 2019.