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It's hard to be invisible when you're dancing around a wrestling mat, shooting close-up details of athletes by zooming in with both camera and body. But despite the hint of self-consciousness the pair of photographers inspire in their subjects, Jonathan Anderson and Edwin Low manage to find a way to bring the world-class athletes they are photographing to a paradoxical blending of relaxed intensity.
"I should shave first," says the No. 1 nationally ranked freestyle wrestler, Dominick Black before sitting for a portrait.
"No, the rougher the better," Anderson tells him. "It's all about sweat."
Black hadn't yet seen the exhibit of Anderson and Low's work, hanging in the Hall of Fame at the Olympic Visitor's Center. Although there is a romantic quality about their treatment of the athletes, that romanticism is found in the gritty intensity of individuals completely dedicated and focused on the demanding and punishing aspiration of preparing their bodies to excel in the Olympic arena.
The English and Malaysian partners in photography, Anderson and Low, are here to celebrate the opening of their exhibit, The Athlete, and to take photographs of American athletes to add to their exhibit before bringing it to Sydney in time for this year's Summer Olympics.
Their pictures tell a story well beyond the superficial image of the human physique. The photographs drip with subtext and bristle with potential energy, exuding character and capturing the long range involvement, intensity, focus and drive of individuals in pursuit of the Olympic ideal.
"The nicest comment I heard was from one of the athletes who said everything he felt inside when he was training he didn't think outsiders understood," said Anderson, "but he was amazed because he saw it on the wall."
Anderson and Low came to this project two years ago, in response to a request from the National Art Gallery of Malaysia to stage a show to coincide with the opening of the 1998 Commonwealth Games.
"We do believe in the Olympic idea in all its forms, quite genuinely by now," Anderson explains.
"I'm quite envious," Low says of the life of the athletes. "If I was a kid, I would love to have been a sportsman. But then I wouldn't have been an artist."
Their work has an "old school" quality to it, easily fooling the viewer into thinking the subjects were shot half a century ago. "We want our work to have a timeless quality," Low confirms. "It could be now, it could be 50 years ago." The quality is well suited to their subjects, "old school" athletes, competing in the longest continuous sports competition.
The artistic partnership is so seamless, that even the two photographers find difficulty in distinguishing one's work from the other, and all of their work bears both of their names. When they shoot portraits with one camera, they both check every detail before one of them pulls the trigger, and when they shoot action, one or the other tends to "direct" while the other shoots. They both perk up in unison when an intriguing detail is revealed. "What's that you were doing with your hands?" they ask, turning back to their subject who had been fingering the tape around his fingers. The sight of a nearly-missed tattoo -- another favorite subject of theirs -- in the small of the back of Dominick Black as he leaves the weight room sends them leaping for cameras.
"I think the reason it works is that Edwin will start here and I'll start here," Anderson explains, "and we have to arrive at a constructive solution to our different views that is better than either of our starting points."
Restricting themselves to working with available light, the team finds a weight room ideally suited for portraits, with a full wall of windows letting in the reflected light from a fresh snowfall.
They will tell you there is no secret to what they are doing. "The great thing about these guys is you don't have to do anything; they're just exactly as they should be," Anderson remarks as Low prepares another wrestler for a portrait. "The rest is in the printing."
I look through the viewfinder of their camera, and I can see what they mean. The classic photo is there, waiting for someone to click it, as Kerry Boumans looks off, a new cut on his lip caught in profile, intensity emanating like a visible aura.
"You caught me at a bad time," Boumans says apologetically, "I'm usually more scratched up."
The attention to injury, scars, bruises, abrasion, "the suffering of others" as Anderson jokingly refers to it, is one of the distinguishing characteristics of their work.
"We don't want it just to look physically horrendous, which it does," Anderson explained the next day, referring to a taekwondo athlete who received a black eye the size of a grapefruit during training, "but we want to try and instill some sort of reflective quality in it as well." They are extremely grateful that athletes trust them to portray these painful images appropriately. Having an exhibit-sized portfolio hanging on the grounds doesn't hurt.
One of the more evocative images in the exhibit is a detail of a weightlifter's hands, "Toughened Hands," a palm reader's dream piece, the tale of disciplined training stamped clearly on fingers that bear the deep impression of a weighted bar. "It's obviously battered," Anderson observed, "but at the same time there's a kind of elegance, there's a kind of weathered quality to it. This isn't just an acute injury, this is something they have to go through repeatedly."
Even when shooting portraits, Anderson and Low want the images as raw and expressive as possible, opting for the sweaty look of exhaustion rather than the showered and shaved look of recovery.
"His face is real intense," Low says of Sean Harrington, a wrestler who came directly from practice to the weight room for a portrait. "He's really tired now. We want to catch that."
"Don't wipe the sweat off, whatever you do," Anderson adds.
The artists have a knack for catching athletes in very private moments, in various stages of emotional undress, whether the intense ferocity of a competitive moment, the outer limits of pain and frustration or the juxtaposition of energy when a boxer is caught playing a delicate acoustic guitar after a workout.
They have been increasingly interested in details bordering on abstraction, and the wrestling action feeds their appetite for intricate visual imagery. The last shot of the morning finds Harrington holding Mike Eierman in a side-armed headlock, legs and arms intertwined in an illusory melding of limbs.
"There was that extraordinary physical convolution to it," Anderson recalled the next day, brimming with anticipation at the chance to see the prints.
"The intensity of that one-on-one combat," Anderson continued. "It's a stylized combat, but in a sense it is a combat between two people, rather than just a game. So the sense of exertion, to be that opposed to someone mentally and physically and yet in such close proximity to them, is quite an interesting juxtaposition of ideas."
"These people live, breathe, eat, sleep what they do, completely," Anderson concludes, and as their work vividly underscores, it would be difficult to ask for more in a photographic subject.
An exhibition of photographs by Anderson & Low
The Olympic Visitors Center, Hall of Fame, corner of Boulder St. and Union Ave., 578-4618.
Free and open to the public; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, through June 30