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Boxing Wed Feb 16 2011

Capturing Stillness in Chicago's Boxing Clubs

We caught up with photographer Jason Reblando to talk about his series on the amateur boxing clubs of the Chicago Park District, a project years in the making that documents young athletes in transition, caught between childhood and adulthood. It's showing through Friday at the President's Gallery at Harold Washington College.

UPDATE: Look for the show April 1 at the Canale Art Lounge as well.

Q: How did you get started on this project? What led you to boxing?

I know very little about boxing. I know what the average person knows. ... [My interest was] more about photography and city living more than the sport itself. But it was a great entry point into Chicago. I first started the project when I moved to Chicago in 2002 and didn't know anything about the city, didn't know anything about the neighborhoods. I didn't know the train. I just didn't know anyone. And I ended up taking a photo class at Truman College and just started taking pictures in Clarendon Park gym and then I found out about all their other athletic fieldhouses that were part of the Chicago Park District. I saw that they were all over the city and I figured that would be a good way to get to know people, get to know neighborhoods.

And I think the reason why I focused on boxing was just because I wanted to talk to people and it was pretty easy to talk to people in between sparring and their exercises. I didn't have to set up a meeting with a big team, like a football team or a basketball team. It was nice to just be one-on-one, and even though I was partly interrupting their rest time, everyone was really generous with their time. I think people just like being paid attention to.

Q: So it's been a while since you shot these photos.

I would say I started in 2002 and went through probably 2006. So all that time, after that first semester at Truman, I started taking classes at Columbia College. I was taking classes there for quite a while as a student-at-large, just trying to build up my photo skills block by block. First I took a documentary class, then I took a color class, then I took a studio class - just all the while staying with boxing, using that and mining it for all I could.

Q: How did the project change as your skills developed?

It changed in every way. Artistically. It changed psychologically. My relationship with the city changed, also. Of course, I started out taking black and white, because that's all I knew, and it was pretty traditional as far as what you would expect from boxing photos: a lot of motion, a lot of people in the ring hitting each other. And then when I took the color class at Columbia College, the big charge is to notice color in the world. As I was going back to these rings, I noticed there was lots of really bright, saturated colors and I figured we've all seen a lot of boxing photos that are black and white. It kind of captures the grittiness of the sport. It's very classic-looking. But when I decided to switch to color and use color for a certain purpose, I started thinking about the psychology of color. There are these bright blue gloves and bright red shorts and bright yellow walls -- real primary colors that kind of get the boxers' blood up. They weren't calming. It wasn't grey or beige. They were colors to stimulate, almost like a matador's cape waving in front of a bull.

Q: How did you wind up moving from action shots to quieter moments?

I was really interested in portraiture and I took a portrait class with a great teacher. His name is Dawoud Bey. He was a really big influence on me in school. Just trying to be interested in the human position and the human subject. But I still wanted to stay with the boxing ring. So actually, that really changed ... [to] capturing stillness in these in-between moments of a boxer. I was thinking about not only the in-between moments in between rounds where the boxers are thinking about what they've just done and what they're about to do, but also these in-between moments in between childhood and adulthood. They're tough but they're vulnerable. Their minds are developing. Their bodies are still developing. Their personalities are still developing. I'm not sure if I really did, I strived to capture that in these photos. That's the kind of mood that I wanted to evoke.

Q: You could, of course, do portraiture of any athlete at rest, but you felt boxing was especially well suited for that approach?

I think so. There's a pretty tight-knit boxing community. You have your coaches and your corner men. You have your fellow sparring partners. But I think it's a very solitary sport. With these portraits, these solitary portraits, I wanted people to focus on the individual. I'm sure if people took photos of individual baseball players or individual football players, they'd still be an individual, but that individual is really part of a team. The team is depending on them. They're a star or -- they're part of a unit. But I think with boxing, they're there all alone. In those few minutes that they're fighting, they're all alone. In those few minutes that they're resting, they're kind of back in their head. When that bell goes off, something switches in them and they jump into action. When it goes off again, they jump back to thinking mode.

Q: What kept you interested so long, going back for years?

I'm also interested in social urban issues. I do a lot of freelancing for non-profit organizations and non-profit periodicals, like the Chicago Reporter and Catalyst -- they're an education magazine -- and I'm always interested in marginalized populations. ... I think it's kind of a niche sport. Another thing that kept me going back was my interest in all these changing neighborhoods of Chicago. A lot of the boxing rings, a lot of the fieldhouses were associated with public housing or with areas that were undergoing drastic transformation. In particular, I kept going back to the athletic fieldhouse at Stateway Gardens. That was at 35th Street and State Street, and that's all gone now. There's some townhouses there now. ... The thing that kept me going back was the community aspect of these areas in which the boxers lived. I kept going back to Eckhart Park and Stateway Gardens ... As I learned the lighting [of a new gym], I also got to know the people. One of the strategies was to be a fly on the wall but also have people be comfortable enough with me so that I could more comfortably ask them to pose for a photo.

Q: What did you learn in the Chicago boxing scene?

I learned a lot about human dynamics, as far as how coaches motivate people. Kids. There's a lot of tough love going on. A lot of tough love. ... There's one coach in particular at Stateway Gardens who really loved those kids a lot. Even if it was a really tough day, I could see the coach really reach down deep and try to motivate them. Empower them and pump them up. I think it really makes a difference in those kids' lives and I think getting these adolescents to pay attention to an adult figure that early and that focused, I think it's a really great thing.

Q: Is it odd to think how much these kids have grown and changed since you took these photos?

It's bizarre. It really is a testament to the power of photography, where you just capture this moment in time and everything changes after that. I'm not a parent, but to me, they'll always be 8 years old. It's really bizarre, because every now and then someone will contact me, saying 'I was a boxer at Eckhart Park and you took a photo of me. Do you have it?' And I'll try to get it to them.

Q: How many did you take?

Oh, thousands. And I'm only really happy with 20. [laughs] ...

Q: What about this series made it a good fit for the gallery at Harold Washington?

I decided to push the boxing photos because Harold Washington is the epitome of the city college. I thought that the photos would speak about the projects. Sometimes people use boxing as a metaphor for urban struggle, and there's that mythology around it. That mythology exists and part of that's true, but the stuff that I was trying to get at and the stuff that I'm trying to have viewers think about is that boxing is more complex than just what you see in the movies and more complex than two people hitting each other in the ring. ...

One thing that struck me was there was so much more than boxing that was going on in those gyms. A lot of people use those fieldhouses as community centers. People would just hang out, even if they weren't boxing. Sometimes the coach would yell, 'OK, just boxers. Everyone has to leave.' But mostly it's a very social environment. I thought it was really a nice thing.

Q: The 13 or 14 photos you chose for the show -- what made them stand out?

I think there's a quiet drama about my final selection, whether it be the drama in an expression or a gesture or interaction between people. A lot of them are singular portraits, but there's a few of them where there's a couple of figures in the photo and everything just fell into place. It was really hard to get good at that. I think all those thousands of photos that I didn't select -- those were practice. It's all practice.

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