Thomas McGovern sent three terrific books to F295 to be considered for Photobook Week. We loved them all, but really wanted to hear him reflect on his Hard Boys + Bad Girls project. It’s a really wonderful collection of images (and a few interviews) of amateur wrestlers.
The 112 page, hard-bound book is 8.75×11.75″ and features a terrific selection of images and interviews. It was published by Schiffer in 2010. The volume is available on Amazon and other bookstores.
TP: Can you tell us about your background and the origins of your interest in photography?
TM: I was a student of John Gossage at the University of Maryland in the late 1970s where my interests in photography and art were formed. I moved to NYC in 1980 to pursue my art career and my work has been in many solo and group exhibitions and collected by some nice museums. My first significant body of work was a series of anonymous street portraits. I still love that work. I am the author of Bearing Witness (to AIDS), HARD BOYS + BAD GIRLS, Amazing Grace and most recently, Vital Signs. I was a busy editorial photographer during the late 80s to mid 90s in NYC and was the photo editor of the Village Voice from 92 to 94. I received my MFA from California State University, Fullerton, and was hired as a professor at Cal State San Bernardino in 2000, where I have been ever since. I started the photography magazine Dotophotozine in 2011 and this year I founded the Dotphotozine Award for Excellence in Photography.
TP: What path did you take to creating the body of work for Hard Boys + Bad Girls?
TM: I came across the School of Hard Knocks wrestling school in 2001 and found it fascinating. The wrestlers have so much ambition and drive, and not unlike many artists, they live/work to achieve a dream that may never materialize. The promoter was excited about me photographing the wrestlers and the matches and gave me full access and in return I gave him and the wrestlers photographs, and permission to use them. I was entranced by their passion, crazy personas and costumes, and the way wrestling manifests the zeitgeist- the blending of fact and fiction and the drive for fame that is a hallmark of our culture.
TP: Can you tell us about the experience of making the work?
TM: I made a lot of pictures and returned every few weeks with prints. The wrestlers were thrilled to see themselves and crowded around me to get their copies. This fed their desire to be photographed. My only rule was that I wanted to photograph them ‘in character’. I knew this approach would allow their real selves to be seen only through a close reading of the pictures- which not everyone does. I hoped this would encourage a deeper reading of not only my work but of photographs in general. Photographs hold so many clues that are overlooked. I wanted my viewers to see beyond the superficial and into the slight young person who was working desperately to make their mark in a work where image/images rule. I also wanted to make pictures that were fun, funny, and poignant — pictures about the human spirit.
TP: What story are you trying to tell with this work?
TM: First about the dedication and hard work of these young men and women. But ultimately about the nature of representation; how photographs hold clues and require a close reading, and about how wrestling is a manifestation of our culture. Also, the individual stories were pretty compelling. Each wrestler had a long story about how they always loved wrestling, how it was the only thing they wanted to do, and what they had to do to become one.
TP: Why did you decide to make Hard Boys + Bad Girls into a book?
TM: Pro Wrestling is about spectacle and entertainment and celebrity, so a book is a natural expression of those things. And I wanted as many people to see the pictures and read the stories as possible. I love books as objects and as cultural artifacts and want my work to live beyond the limited audience of exhibitions.
TP: What are your feelings regarding the multiple ways – online, phones, prints, books, in a gallery, etc – the public consumes images today?
TM: I find the multiple platforms for images exciting and bewildering. Exciting for so many great images to be seen and so many easy ways for photographers to get their work out, but obviously bewildering for the sheer number of images that can never be seen or appreciated. Also, with so many images, the individual image has seemingly been devalued (supply and demand?). I want people to take time and look very closely at a photograph (object) and screen based imagery doesn’t seem to encourage that investigation. The pleasure, satisfaction, and edification of reading a great Atget or Walker Evans photograph is profound. It takes some training to get my students to read pictures and not just look at them.
TP: How do you prefer to look at images – and why?
TM: I love the print and the reproduction in books best for the reasons above. I make all my photographs (analog and digital) and find the analog processes so wonderfully slow and contemplative. I feel like I’m in the print and when I look at someone else’s photograph, I feel that I’m looking at them too. The book is great because like a novel, to understand it takes time and patience. I go back to books to see the pictures again and I love reading what the artist has to say about his/her work (though I often disregard their words when I see something else in their pictures!). I want to hold a book and see the sheen on the paper and hold a print (which is wonderful) to experience the object.
TP: What project(s) are on your horizon?
TM: I make a lot of pictures and am interested in a lot of things, but all my work for the past ten years or so has been about San Bernardino, California, where I live. I’ve photographed a Chabad Rabbi for a year as he sought to bring Jews to their traditional religion (very few Jews around here); I photograph people in cars as their cruising at a big car show each year (I’m being a vouyer and basically making portraits); I continue to photograph signage, hand made and otherwise; I have a series of people flipping through their favorite books that I’m making into a hand made books; I’ve been photographing the boom and bust and now resumption of a housing project here in town (basically landscapes), and now I’m photographing at huge weekly swap meet in San Bernardino.
TP: What drives you to create photographs?
TM: Part of it is ego- I love seeing my own photographs! Another part is that I think there are wonderful things here in my funky, bankrupt city. The people and culture are vibrant and completely overlooked, which givse me incredible freedom to photograph just about anything. I hope my photographs are looked at for a long time after I’m gone and tell the story of this place and the people that make it special.
San Bernardino, California
July 24, 2014
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