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photo-eye Book Reviews: The Black Eye

The Black Eye, Photographs by Michal Chelbin. 
Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2010.
The Black Eye
Reviewed by George Slade
Michal Chelbin The Black Eye
Photographs by Michal Chelbin
Twin Palms Publishers, Santa Fe, 2010. Hardbound. 96 pp., 51 illustrations, 11x12."

Michal Chelbin's first book, Strangely Familiar, looked broadly at youth playing roles of entertainers - acrobats, dancers, gymnasts - and members of teams, whether military or athletic. "Playing," even in the sense of role-playing, isn't quite accurate; those "actors" are deadly serious, with faces that suggest hard labor in a coalmine. What we recognize in her photographs, and what makes them so strange, are the faces of adults, working stiffs, borne by children.

The Black Eye deepens the investigation into one occupation in the first book; indeed, some of Strangely Familiar's images reappear in the new volume. Wrestling, in Russia and Ukraine, in 2006, 2007, and 2008, is the milieu for the fifty haunting portraits (plus a striking cover photograph of a deserted but well-used training room) Chelbin has assembled in this typically alluring Jack Woody-designed book. *

The Black Eye, by Michal Chelbin. Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2010.
There are some odd moments in this book. Pairs of wrestlers pose for Chelbin as though illustrating holds, but the demonstrations take place anywhere but on gym mats. A young woman (yes, women wrestle too) hoists a man in a blue/black singlet; both look to Chelbin, to us, for some unspecified purpose. Perhaps we can tell them why they are in full regalia (sans headgear) in a forest clearing. Or not.

The Black Eye, by Michal Chelbin. Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2010.
 The vast majority of these wrestlers gaze at us. Their glances are hard to read. Most convey fatigue, or ask incompletely formed questions. Bodies speak more forcefully; they command attention. Flesh and bone communicate dedication and discipline. Charting the sport's morphological evolution, Chelbin starts with the painfully young, seven or eight years old at most, and suggests a continuum through adolescence and teenage development, then leaps ahead a generation, even two, in examples of older wrestlers.

The Black Eye, by Michal Chelbin. Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2010.
 From the impossibly skinny, fey youth, with oversized craniums and chests almost hidden behind the narrow straps of the wrestling uniform, to fleshed-out pectorals and abdominal muscles that push at the picture plane, the insistence or imminence of physical prowess charges this series. Standing against a wall, the wrestlers' legs seem to disappear or shrivel away, Wicked-Witch-like, in the lower third of Chelbin's square frames. Her lens seems pulled by sternums; chests, shoulders, and upper arms are centered, bulging forward as though seen in a convex mirror.

If Chelbin's photographs were mirrors, we might measure ourselves against her continuum of forms. Do we see ourselves as the aspiring youth, the fierce young adult, or the lion in winter, the aged but still vital parental figure? Perhaps this is what the return gazes are asking-do you see yourself in me?

* Check out the match between the color of the weight-room walls and the book's cloth binding.

—George Slade

George Slade, a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is the programs manager and curator at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University. He continues to post content on his blog, re:photographica.