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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews

Book Review Why Omaha? Photographs by Darius Koehli Reviewed by Blake Andrews “I’ve encountered many photobooks over the past few decades, but I can’t recall any shot by a nine-year old. At least until now. Darius Koehli was still in grade school back in 1969 when he began shooting Why Omaha?, an amazing collection of period wrestling snaps..."

Why Omaha? By Darius Koehli.
Why Omaha?
Photographs by Darius Koehli

Edition Patrick Frey, 2022. 114 pp., 150 color illustrations, 8¼x8¼".

I’ve encountered many photobooks over the past few decades, but I can’t recall any shot by a nine-year old. At least until now. Darius Koehli was still in grade school back in 1969 when he began shooting Why Omaha?, an amazing collection of period wrestling snaps. He’d just moved to the titular city from Zurich. Why Omaha? Because his father had a training assignment there. Simple enough, a good professional opportunity for his dad. But Nebraska was tough sledding for young Darius, at least initially. He didn’t know English or American culture, or any kids nearby. The horizon stretched indefinitely in all directions. “There wasn’t much to do at first,” he writes in the afterword, sounding rather bored.

Then he discovered wrestling. The old AWA professional circuit held sway in the midwest at the time, hosting regular matches at the Omaha Civic Auditorium and Pershing Municipal down the road in Lincoln. Young Darius befriended his neighbor Carl and the two attended every match they could, each boy toting a Kodak Instamatic 124 camera stocked with color film and flash cubes. In case you’ve forgotten just what those old clunkers looked like, a model photo appears in the back of the book. “Drop in film, pop on flashcube…Shoot!” cheers the boxed housing, before promising, “Clear sharp pictures!”

Darius Koehli’s wrestling photos occasionally rise to the “clear sharp pictures” standard. But more often they suffer from amateur sloppiness. There are blown highlights, camera shake, mis-focus and man-eating shadows. The typical defects one might expect from kids with cameras, in other words, exacerbated by poor lens quality and 50 years of color shift.

All potentially problematic issues, yes. But browsing the book, these faults fade away like old memories. Because the subject matter is solid gold. Better yet, it’s shot by a kid with natural talent. Working (or maybe “playing” is a better word?) on instinct and without rules or training, Koehli got right on top of his subjects, smacking down wrestlers with one precocious exposure after another. Sigh, out of the lenses of babes.

Koehli caught much of the action ringside, almost atop the barrier ropes sometimes caught by his flash. The wrestling circuit’s bare-chested characters were eye-catching to start with, adorned in briefs, sequins and the occasional cowboy hat. Koehli’s pictures exaggerate their oddities. On the mat we see limbs flying, faces scrunched, blood splotches and choreographed poses. The matches might have been loosely plotted in some back room, but for a ringside photographer, there was little telling what might happen at any moment. Between or after the fights Darius might wander the arena, on the hunt for wrestlers mingling in street clothes or other spectators. All have a peculiar upward perspective, the vantage of a four-foot 9-year old. No matter where he aimed his Instamatic, people seem to regard his camera with a blend of bemusement and surprise. Is that kid really photographing me? How odd. If there were more antagonistic reactions, they’ve been lost to history.

After the 1970 spring wrestling season, Darius Koehli and his family returned to Switzerland. In the fashion of most 9-year-olds, his possessions became scattered into storage or lost entirely. Even after he became a serious photographer as an adult in Barcelona, the wrestling pics escaped the memory of Darius Koelhi, fading into boyhood memories along with Legos and blocks. They might have been forgotten entirely. But on a family visit to Zurich in 2019, he stumbled on the wrestling photo album in an old suitcase. Bingo! What have we here?

Long-lost film photos rediscovered by chance are a recurring motif in photo history. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The astonishing thing is that such discoveries hit pay dirt with regularity, and that’s the case here as well. “Magical names, magical images,” reminisces Koelhi, “Welcome to a world long forgotten. Welcome back to Omaha 1969!” By this point, wrestling photos have entered the mainstream, beginning most famously with Geoff Winningham’s Friday Night in The Coliseum, shot just down the road from Omaha in Houston in 1971.

Like that book, Why Omaha? is a time machine, transporting readers along with Koehli back 50+ years. You can almost smell the sweat and dank air of the old arenas. A nice book and a touch of spot varnish have brought the scene back to life, good as new. The book’s photos are supplemented by more nostalgia, a few dozen capsule biographies of old wrestlers, a complete timeline of 69/70 wrestling matches, and a brief history of the old AWA, which was wrestling’s dominant league until being usurped by Hulk Hogan and the WWF in the early 1980s. Altogether it’s an informative and entertaining snapshot of a bygone world.

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at