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Interviews: Michal Chelbin and The Black Eye

In her first book, the Strangely Familiar, Michal Chelbin presented a series of images of contortionists, dwarfs, ballroom dancers and wrestlers, traveling troupes of performers. In The Black Eye, her latest publication from Twin Palms, Chelbin chose to focus specifically on wrestlers. Depicting athletes of a variety of ages -- painfully thin youngsters, muscley adolescence whose child-like faces seem at odds with their well-developed frames, and a few adults, some pictured with their children -- there is a peculiar timelessness to these images. Painterly in composition and lighting, the subjects of Chelbin's images look into the camera with an unusual stare. Their gazes are intriguing, almost automatic, but somehow also indecipherable.

photo-eye's Melanie McWhorter and Antone Dolezal sat down for a Skype conversation with Chelbin and her husband, producer and assistant Oded Plotnizki, to talk about the making of the book, the process of shooting in small Eastern European wrestling clubs and the difficulty of capturing the unique unconscious look in the eyes of Chelbin's exhausted subjects.


Melanie McWhorter:    Why did you title the new book The Black Eye?  Aside from the obvious, does it have other meanings?

Michal Chelbin:    I called it after one of the images in the book - I thought it would be nice to call it after one of the images.  Also, it makes it different from the Aperture book, the Strangely Familiar book. And actually Jack added "The" Black Eye.  I wanted to call it only Black Eye and he added "The."  That's it! Aside from that there are no other meanings. The photograph is actually one of the kids with a black eye.

Antone Dolezal:    You've been photographing performers for some time.  What were your reasons for dedicating a book to adolescent wrestling?

Roman, Ukraine 2006
MC:    Actually it's not just adolescents, there are a range of ages in the book.  There are also older kids and girls and boys and from cultures as well.  And this book started when I worked on the Strangely Familiar, and I wanted to do a shoot of wrestling teams and I came to a wrestling competition. While I was waiting for the wrestlers I realized that they were so sweaty after a fight and they looked so exhausted and I immediately knew what I wanted to do. Something about their gaze - they look as if they are hypnotized, like they are in unconsciousness.  But at the same time their physicality was very strong so it was a contrast - I really loved the contrast between their physicality their awakeness so I decided to dedicate the book to wrestling. And one thing lead to another and Jack [Woody from Twin Palms] saw the portfolio and he really liked it.

MM:    Where did Jack see the work?

MC:    It was actually in New York.  It was before Strangely Familiar was published. I showed him the Strangely Familiar and I wanted interest him with it but it wasn't for him.  So I showed him this work in progress and I had something like 20 frames or so and they were laser prints, really bad quality, and when I showed him the photographs he really liked it.  He wanted to do a book with it - he immediately said that this is what he wanted to do.

MM:    Yeah, maybe because of the athletes and gymnasts in the Luke Smalley work that he's done, so maybe it's still part of his publishing program.

MC:    Yes. I agree.

MM:    And did you meet him at a review?

MC:    The first time I met him at Review Santa Fe - the same as when we met at Review Santa Fe.

MM:    Yeah, the same year that you and I met.  Yes, I remember that.  You were the first in line in front of five people.  I remember that work.

MC:    The second time I met him was in New York.  We kept in touch and we met in New York.  But the first time was in Santa Fe.

MM:    That's good. Review Santa Fe will like to know that. 

MC:    And the first time I met Lesley Martin [from Aperture] was also at Review Santa Fe and this lead to the book eventually, the first book, the Aperture book.

MM:    Did you keep in touch with Lesley or was she taken immediately with the work?  Did she say 'We want to publish this' or was it an on-going process?

MC:    It was on-going.  From the first time we met in Santa Fe to when the book was published it had to go through the committee and all the staff had to approve it and I think it took about a year for them to approve it and another year until they published it.  It's a different process with a non-profit organization.  It was a different project than with Twin Palms.

Girl with a Plaster, Ukraine 2006                                                                                Ilya, Ukraine 2006
AD:    How long did you work with each group on the project as a whole?

MC:    I spent a few days in every wrestling club.  It wasn't only one - it was several.  And I spent between days to weeks with them.  Usually this is what I do in order to create trust and intimacy.

AD:    Was there a process of researching the clubs that you were going to to take photographs of before hand?  How did you come about photographing these particular clubs?

MC:    Let me get my husband whose actually doing all the production work for my project.

Oded Plotnizki:    We shoot in the Ukraine or Russia but we don't live there so we call them in advance and make a plan, schedule to visit this place for several days and then the next place.  And we just inquire over the phone about what the place looks like how many wrestlers, what ages, just to see if we have something to work with.  And then when we get there we might go in advance just one time before we shoot but usually we just arrive and start to work, start to choose who interests us.  And because we spend several days we don't necessarily need to see the place in advance.  Sometimes Michal would shoot the same person several times just to get the right expressions and the nuances.

AD:    So you start working immediately once you arrive at a club.

OP:    Yeah, usually we start immediately because wrestling clubs usually practice twice a day, mornings and afternoons. We try to be there when they practice so they get used to our presence and then after several days we're just part of the play.  And a big part of what Michal is doing is casting.  At the beginning we try to find the right subjects, choose the right ones for us and work with them for several days.

    Many of the photographs in The Black Eye are taken in Eastern Europe or Russia, and from an American standpoint it seems like you were capturing an essence of the Old World. Was this your intent and do you travel to countries that help direct your images in this way? What makes you pick the countries that you are photographing in?

MC:    It's not that my theme is sociological or geographic.  It's more mythological, it's more about the universal.  So I'm actually looking for a set up with all the elements that interest me, and those countries, they have everything for me, from the casting to the locations to the lighting to everything that makes a photograph great. 

OP:    I think what Michal is trying to say is that it's not geographical photography, it's not about these countries but in the question you were asking about...

MM:    It's kind a feel, they're almost nostalgic...

OP:    Well, we do travel to countries that have directed the images in this way, that's very precise.  Those countries provide a set, the lighting, the casting, the background - everything that she needs to mix in order to make the images.

Two Athletes, Ukraine 2006
MC:    Also a contrast between old and new, I think this is what you...

OP:    If you just examine the photographs in the sense of where they were photographed then you do get a sense of what those countries are about because for example Russia and the Ukraine, historically they are actually very new countries they were only established twenty years ago after communism ended.  So if you look at the photographs from this aspect I think you do get the sense that this place has a big contrast between old and new.  That is something about those places that may come out, but I don't think the photographs are about that.  You certainly get the feeling that there is something stuck in time in these places.

MC:    You also get that sense because they use an old way of training.  For example, they would hit the boys and the girls with shoes.  [Laughter] Yeah, we saw it and it was actually crazy, and we were shocked and they told us that this is the only way to create world champions.  The shoe is part of their training system.

MM:    [Laughter] They would throw shoes at them?  Is that what you said?

MC:    Ah, throwing shoes and they were hitting them with the shoes...

OP:    Slapping them...

MC:    And actually it was a man trainer who picked a girl to throw them, so for me it was great.

OP:    I thought it was great. I think what also brings out this feeling are those backgrounds, the way that in the gyms nothing is very renovated and I think Michal is very much influenced by the history of painting.  There's a lot of pictorial feeling to her photographs.  I think it also makes the images look like something that is from a different time.

MC:    The walls of the gyms have been painted so many times.  Oil paint -- there's something about the texture of the walls that you can't really find anywhere, apart from those places I think.

MM:    What are some of the painterly influences on your work?

Matvey, Russia 2009
MC:    For this book I thought about Caravaggio.  Something about the characters really really reminded me of his characters.  Those boys looked like strong but because we cast ordinary people, their aesthetic to me they looked like Caravaggio's boys.  They were very human, they were strong and weak, and there was something about his paintings that, for me, is strong and seductive at the same time.  I'm talking about his characters.  I think this is the influence in this book.  And besides that I am also very influenced by Vermeer, who to me was one of the first masters in the way he used light and the same goes for Velasquez because he was also casting ordinary people and people with disabilities. Not casting beautiful people. 

MM:    Your use of light is kind of like a Caravaggio.

MC:    Actually it's all available light.  I don't use any artificial light. 

AD:    One thing that struck me right away when viewing The Black Eye was when you're photographing your subjects it seems that you have several different approaches - and some of your photographs are exquisitely elaborate while some of your other subjects seem to be isolated.  How do you determine your interaction and placement with your subjects?

MC:    There are no rules.  It depends on the subject and the location that I have.  It's not good to have rules. It started when I wanted to catch this moment when they are really unconscious and looking through the camera.

AD:    What are your steps for capturing their unconscious?  How do you set up a photograph where you capture one of the wrestlers as being unaware?

OP:    We have to work really fast because you have to make the best of the training session on site and the time when they are really exhausted. Because they are athletes you would only get 5 to 10 minutes of when they're exhausted and after that they start to regain themselves so you had to step really fast.  It really depends on the location and the subjects and because we use available light, the location and the light is the same thing for us, we don't bring lights to the location.  The location and the light is the same. You understand what I'm say?  Therefore it's something that is sort of - once we find our true direction and the person that we want to photograph, it depends on the location and sometimes it depends on the person, sometimes the subject will suggest something that we never thought about.  Some pose or something...

MC:    When we come into a place like this we always scout the locations for lighting and what is a good location for what we need to work with and around in those places. 

OP:    Because the wrestlers are exhausted for 5-7 minutes we have to be close to the training or fighting and once the fight or the training is done we have to immediately bring them in front the camera.

MM:    Yeah, you can really see it.  There's one of a boy whose really sweaty, he's in the red trunks and he's got this peach wall behind him - you can really see the connection, that he's not quite aware and he's just too exhausted than to do much more than to look into the camera. 

Ilya, Ukraine 2006
MC:    Yeah, I know which one.  I think the best images are the ones that were taken not far from the place that they were fighting.  As Oded said, it's like five minutes were they are still exhausted, still heavily breathing and then 5 minutes afterward they look completely different. 

OP:    Also you can see on their skin the heat and the redness in the skin, but only for like, several minutes, until the oxygen starts to work again, which was something difficult for us because we didn't have two hours to work with, we have to do it quickly.  But this is why we photographed the same person several times in different locations and until we had it right.

    I wanted to just ask you a little bit about the book making process and what your role was.  We can first talk about The Black Eye - how did you participate in the book making process?  Once they had agreed to publish the work how did you participate in the publication?

MC:    It was a collaboration.  We picked the images to go into the book together and we really agreed on most of the images.  And I printed them, 11x14 and I sent the prints to Jack.  And then they did the sequence and they showed me and I really liked everything, I saw so it wasn't...

OP:    I think I can help from watching you from the side.  When we photograph Michal is really selective.  After she photographs she's really selective about choosing the image -- she shoots a lot but she selects very few.  But in the book making process, because she's not a book maker, and because she trusted Jack and Twin Palms for their experience and their great eye, she sort of let it go.  After we printed they did sequence, Michal gave them comments, they had a very open creative discussion about it.  And after that there was proofing that was done -- we had two or three rounds of seeing proofs - you know, the scans to approve?  And they kept her in the loop for everything - the cloth of the cover, the jacket, the whole...

MM:    So they just narrowed things down and sent you choices and you said yes or no?

    I mean, I said yes to everything. [Laughter]  I trust them.  They make beautiful books and there was nothing to say, actually.  It was very...  Beside the fact that nothing looks like your prints.  No book can...

    If books were printed on photographic paper they would, but that would never be the case.  There's always a difference between how a print looks.  Although -

MC:    It looks amazing!

    But the quality of the printing they did in the book was very nice, very very nice.


See The Black Eye at photo-eye Bookstore.

Read George Slade's review of The Black Eye in photo-eye Magazine.