Shooting Up: The Art of Boxing Photography

By Laurena Marrone on May 13, 2015
Shooting Up: The Art of Boxing Photography
Yes, Triple G is definitely one that I would love to shoot. I'd love to shoot him training.

I tend to process everything to black and white simply because it has a more classic look and sort of ties into the long tradition of the sport…

“Sometimes you get splattered, sometimes you get stepped on, but that ideal position is ringside, shooting up, to keep the fighter at a more heroic posture.”—Peter Politanoff

In 2012, Sports Illustrated published its 100 Greatest Sports Photos of All-Time. The first photo in the gallery is the iconic overhead shot by Neil Leifer of Muhammad Ali’s third round knockout of Cleveland Williams in 1966. It is an image that uniquely captures the intimacy of the sport from a great distance, offering a bird’s eye view of two warriors, one in victory, one in defeat. It’s only fitting that this picture is high on the list of photographer Peter Politanoff’s all-time favorites, as he’d been eyeing the sport from a distance for some time while making a name for himself in the world of film and television. 

Peter Politanoff’s work in film and television has earned him two Emmy nominations, two CLIO awards, and an Art Directors Guild nomination. His photographs have been exhibited in Los Angeles, Miami and Atlanta. He is a lifelong photographer whose first memories of boxing were, like many of us, Friday Night Fights with his father.

I came across one of Peter’s boxing photographs purely by accident a few months ago. As someone who has always loved black and white photography, his work mesmerized me from the start. They reminded me of a quote by the great American photographer, Dorothea Lange: “I believe in living with the camera, and not using the camera.” If you follow Peter’s body of work, it is evident that he shares this philosophy, for his images of even the most mundane objects become thought-provoking, emotional pieces of art.

Peter’s emergence onto the boxing photography scene began about five years ago, mostly by happenstance. He was photographing a surfer in California who had mentioned to him that he was also training in boxing. Peter asked if he could shoot at the gym, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I had the opportunity to chat with Peter a couple of weeks ago. Here’s how our conversation unfolded:

Was there something specifically that made you want to pursue boxing photography?

Just being a child and Friday Night Fights, sitting on the couch with my father watching the fights. Then, when I was in college, I met Ali. And because I work in the film business, I am always in a position where I am setting up themes for fights for various TV shows, commercials, and whatever. Every time I had set them up I always wanted to also shoot them, but I never had time.

So, it was about five years ago and I was shooting a lot of a surfer who also trains for boxing. I said, “Can you introduce me to some of the guys?” Nothing came of it. Months later, it finally happened. The first trainer that I met was Jamal Abdullah, who was working with Joe Hank. It was three o’clock in the afternoon. He said, “You know, there is not much going on here at three in the afternoon, but you are certainly welcome to come back here. Come back to our morning ten o’clock.” So I did. The heavyweights had their training camp and then Manny Robles with the LA Matadors were training for a couple of hours after that. When I could get there, I’d have a big block of time, and for months I just went there every day and I shot and shot and shot so I developed a relationship with trainers and with the fighters.

That is the one thing that I like about photographing boxing, I like to go and shoot these guys training and watch them spar and then get to go see them fight. Because you see their development. You see what they are working toward. It’s very rewarding in that way. And also when I shoot, I tend to shoot a little lighter, I like to tell a little bit of a story whenever I can. So that is kind of my approach to boxing.

What was the first camera you ever received?

My first camera was a Kodak Retina IIc, a hand-me-down from my father at age 14. A totally manual camera, no light meter. He had taught me how to guestimate the light levels and how to use the camera. I had to learn how to measure the light with my eyes, so it was a lot of trial and error. He was not a professional photographer, rather someone who always had the camera with him.

What was the camera you used for your first boxing photo and are you still using that camera?

The first camera I used for boxing was my Canon 1D Mark III, a sports camera, but it didn’t have sufficient ISO range for the different venues and boxing gyms. Now I shoot with the Canon 1Dx , my main camera, and the Canon 5D Mark III. On occasion I will also use my Leica M, so there are some shots that I take that are totally manual focus.

Do you have a preference?

For the action, the Canons are better cameras. For my street photography, I use mainly the Leica. They are lighter to carry around and the manual focus forces you to think a little bit more about what you shoot and are composing.

And your selfies are with your iPhone?

I shoot a lot with my iPhone. You know, before the iPhone, they weren’t called selfies, they were called self-portraits or auto-portraits, but now I have to call them selfies! On my blog, I say, “You know, I just can’t walk past a mirror without taking a self portrait.” It has to do with validation, you know, that I was there. See, I am in the shot. I was there. Actually there! It puts me in the picture, because I am never in anyone’s picture. I’m always taking the photo.

Have you found a certain position, place or manner in which to get the best boxing shots?

Of course, the ideal position is ringside. Every photographer approaches it differently in the way they shoot. Some shoot very wide and crop in. Some take a couple shots and take a look to see what they have gotten. I generally don’t do that. I generally prefer concentration, because I like to compose while I shoot. I’m always trying to get the proper composition so that if I do have to do some adjusting it is really minimal. So you’re ringside and you are shooting either below the last rope or between the first and second rope. And so for myself at least, I’m always moving, and moving the camera, from those two positions and to get the optimum position. I shoot from ringside because the shots tend to be more heroic.

Once in a while you are way up at the top and you have to shoot with 300 or 400 mm lens. And although you tend to get a good shot, the shots are not heroic. You are looking down at the action as opposed to looking up at it. Also, ringside you feel more of the energy of the fight, whereas from a distance it is like watching it on TV and so it is a totally different vibe and you come away from it with a totally different feeling. It’s almost too objective, whereas when you are at ringside, the shots tend to be mixed up because you are right there. Sometimes you get splattered, sometimes you get stepped on, but that ideal position is ringside, shooting up, to keep the fighter at a more heroic posture.

What is your favorite boxing photograph?

I have two. Neil Leifer’s Ali vs. Liston from 1965 and also his brilliant shot from the rafters where Ali KOs Cleveland Williams, 1966. Those have always been my two favorites because even though the punches with the splatter, and the sweat, and sometimes the blood and the mucus are interesting, those are not the shots that I’m really interested in. I shoot them and I publish them or whatever but they don’t tell the story. The closest I’ve come to an Ali type knockout shot was when Kayode knocked out Fulton in December, 2013.

And the favorite photograph that you’ve taken?

I don’t know. I’ve got so many. The funny thing is I shoot so much that I just catalogue them and move on to the next shoot. I’m just starting to go back now and find to refine the selection so that I can come up with maybe 20 or 30 of my favorite shots. But it’s sort of a difficult process. I try to do clever shots where I get mirrors and things like that and those are the ones that I like.

I think one of my favorite shots is one of my earliest shots, from 2013. It’s of heavyweight Timur Ibragimov (just prior to his loss to Seth Mitchell) after he finished working on the speed bag, with middleweight Dmitry Chudinov in the background.

There is one of your photos that I’d like to ask you about, my personal favorite. It’s the eighth image in your series “The Knockdown #1.”

This is where light welterweight Dinmukhamed Niyazov KOs Ralph Prescott in the first round.  It’s from December 21, 2012 and shot with the Canon 1Dx 24mm lens. In this shot, we’ve got the fighter with his arms on the rope on the left of the frame. The other fighter is trying to get up. That was one of the earlier fights that I shot in boxing and it’s why I like The Knockdown Series. Most of my fight shots, they tend to tell a story. The fighter is really struggling to get up and you can see sort of the weight that is down on him. His gloves are both hanging at his side and he is trying to get up before the count. For me that was a very powerful, one of the more powerful shots that I have, I think.

When you shot this photo did you immediately feel that it was going to be a great photo?

Yes. I was able to pull back quick enough to grab that framing, and in a situation like this I probably shot about ten frames. This was the tenth frame. I probably had him coming up all the way up. I felt this one was the more powerful image. It’s sometimes tough to pull back fast enough or to get the composition and here I knew I had the composition. Composition is always the tough part because you want to get the fighter before he goes into a neutral corner that is too wide or before he turns his back. So here it may have been the second knockdown of the fight. The second or maybe the third. So he just went back to the neutral corner and he was very relaxed, he wasn’t celebrating.  He was thinking, “This is all business.” And I think this is what makes this shot so good.

Have you run across any boxers that have refused to be photographed?

Oh, no, no, they love the publicity! They love the photos! Some of these fighters, I’ll give them my card or they already have my email address or whatever and I’ll tell them, look you’ll get the images from me. And within like two hours of getting home, you’ll hear from them. “Did you get any good photos of me today?” They love it!

You have to ask permission of course. You don’t just go in and shoot. I shot Peter Quillin a couple of times before his last bout. I met him because I was shooting Ray Beltran, who I have known for a few years. I’ll see Ray maybe once or twice before each big fight. I’ve had a good relationship with him and so Peter was there and I asked him, “Could I shoot?” He said, “Yes, but I’d like to get the photographs,” and I said, ” I always send photographs.” So I sent him the photographs of what I shot of him that day and asked if I could come back again and he said, “Yes, you can come back again!” These guys just love the photos.

I used to shoot a lot of sparring, but it’s a hard card. Especially when you’ve got two fighters you know and they are sparring against each other and one is dominating the other, it is kind of tough to post it. So I try to concentrate on random sparring shots. I’ll shoot a little bit. But I tend to go just to see how sparring is going. Combinations, one shot, basically headhunting. But I love to shoot the guys in training. And if you notice that with a lot of my shots, especially on the bags, I like to get motion blurs. So I tend to shoot a little slower so I can get that motion blur. If I’m shooting for a client, I won’t do that because I know they want sharper images. But if I am shooting for myself I prefer to get the blur in there. Puts you more into the action.

You seem to have an affinity for black and white, correct?

I tend to process everything to black and white simply because it has a more classic look and sort of ties into the long tradition of the sport. And, I like to use black and white also because color can distract. As in the “Knockdown Series,” the photos tend to tell stories and you can’t tell that story very well if there is a bit of red in the corner that pulls your eye. There are certain times the color looks very nice. With motion blurs it might work very nice and sometimes so those are shots I might do for myself but those are generally not the shots that I publish. When I shoot, I always shoot in color, but I can process in black and white through various filters that I like to use. And when I send shots to the fighters I just send them the black and white. I hate to send them the color, so everyone just gets black and white from me now.

Is there a particular boxer right now that you would like to shoot that you haven’t?

Yes, Triple G is definitely one that I would love to shoot. I’d love to shoot him training. I tend to like Russian and former-Soviet fighters, because I’m Russian myself, so you tend to gravitate toward fellow countrymen.

Do you feel like we are currently in boxing’s resurgence?

Without a doubt! You’ve got boxing on network TV. The irony is you’ve got Michael King with All-American Heavyweight talking about getting boxing back on network TV for some time, and then it’s happening now but unfortunately without him. Al Haymon seems to have fingers in all of it; they are really getting it going. We’ve got Premier Boxing Champions, which puts it back on network TV. You look at Showtime, HBO, Fox Sports, ESPN. The significant aspect is that it is back on network TV and it’s definitely making a resurgence in terms of appearance on the screen. Whether it gets the following that it needs we will see, in order to keep it there.

I’ve shot a little bit of MMA and I’m not really much for it. I don’t think that anyone who is really into boxing goes for MMA too much. MMA seems to be like bar room brawling. There is a reason boxing is called a science and that is because there is a lot to it. MMA certainly is a little bit more down and dirty. For a while everyone was talking about MMA, and now everyone is talking boxing. And as much as Mayweather gets criticized, and also Adrien Broner, the hype, that’s all good for boxing because it draws attention to it. It was like Ali in his time when he would just go putting down his opponents or whatever, it brought attention to the sport and that’s good. So I definitely think it’s making a resurgence for now and we’ll hope that it has some length to it.

Peter Politanoff’s work will be on exhibition from Dec. 15, 2015 – Jan. 16, 2016 at The Leica Gallery at Samy’s (Fairfax location) in Los Angeles.

And, I’m very happy to report that as of publishing time, Peter has received media credentials for GGG’s fight on May 16, 2015.

View the images referenced in this story, including two exclusive motion blurs, here: http://peterpolitanoffboxinginterview.weebly.com

View more of Peter’s work on his two blogs:

http://redstarimage.com/

http://ppolitanoff.blogspot.com/

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  1. Laurena 03:56am, 05/14/2015

    Thank you, Guido! You were there for me the moment I penned my first words in boxing, heck, even supported the moment my hands were first wrapped and the world thought I had gone *completely* bonkers. I appreciate you and love you!

  2. Guido Scipione 07:33pm, 05/13/2015

    A truly insightful interview that reveals much of the inner workings of a photographer’s mind. I loved the technical details behind the art. Given the long history of classic B & W photos and boxing, is there really a choice? Kudos to both participants in creating an interesting, worthwhile read and feast for the eyes.

  3. Laurena 06:40pm, 05/13/2015

    Thank you so much Don from Prov!

  4. Don from Prov 06:15pm, 05/13/2015

    Fine, and for me, informative interview.  Very very good work.

  5. Laurena 02:03pm, 05/13/2015

    Richard, DAD. I love you! bikermike, thank you again. much appreciated!

  6. bikermike 02:02pm, 05/13/2015

    Laurena….I especially wish to congratulate your first comment…..after that pac/pbf dogfk…..when you were commenting upon Canelo vs Kirkland slugfest…. All boxing fans left needed that one

  7. Richard Camilleri 02:00pm, 05/13/2015

    I’m so proud of you, great article.  Brings back memories of me sitting with Papa Ted watching Friday night fights.

  8. Laurena 02:00pm, 05/13/2015

    Thank you, Joanne, and I’ll make a boxing fan of you yet! I love you!

  9. Joanne Camilleri 01:56pm, 05/13/2015

    Great article.  You never cease to amaze me!

  10. Laurena 01:52pm, 05/13/2015

    Thank you, bikermike, for commenting. Black and white is timeless. My hope is that Peter gets much deserved recognition from this!

  11. bikermike 01:48pm, 05/13/2015

    Laurena,

    I started out my path to politics….using a camera to give all the hard working people who made the ‘event’ some recognition.and exposure to the newspapers of the time and area…and only twenty percent of each roll of film to the VIP who was arriving…

    I appreciate good photography…cuz I know how hard it is to capture the moment..(nowadays…not so much….digital machine gun takes…limitless frames_)...
    Still , the development of black and white film is still the best…and I thank you for that

  12. Laurena 01:30pm, 05/13/2015

    Shanti, mija- te quiero muchisimo y te echo de menos! Besitos!

  13. Shanti Callister 01:24pm, 05/13/2015

    So intriguing, learn something new about you every day! Love and admire your passion. Never stop pursuing it. And would love to see more photos!

  14. Kid Blast 01:10pm, 05/13/2015

    Black and white is what noir is all about. It’s what The Set Up is all about.

    There is a Deco technique whereby you take a black and white photo and paint a small part of it in turquoise or chartreuses or some such color for a subtle contrast. It truly rules IMO.

  15. Laurena 12:51pm, 05/13/2015

    Thank you, David! Your support means the world to me.

  16. DavidT 11:26am, 05/13/2015

    A great interview, capturing a successful career that spans generations. I absolutely agree with his assessment of black and white photographs.

  17. Laurena 09:24am, 05/13/2015

    Thank you to my “sister” Jenny!  MUAH!

  18. Jenny 09:21am, 05/13/2015

    Great article! It peaked my curiosity, thanks for including the links!!

  19. Laurena 08:42am, 05/13/2015

    Jayme, Sister, Love, THANK YOU. For two gals who hate photos of themselves, we certainly love them of others!

  20. Jayme Camilleri 08:39am, 05/13/2015

    Great article! Thanks for including the links so I could view more of Peter’s work. I, too am a fan of all photos black and white..somehow, the lack of color seems so much more expressive, as color can be distracting from the stories being told..

  21. Laurena 08:33am, 05/13/2015

    Thank you, Larry! You were there from the start! I appreciate the comment so very much.

  22. Larry Hales 08:30am, 05/13/2015

    Great article and great images as well! As a photographer myself I can understand not having a “favorite photo”. It’s so hard to narrow it down to just one.

    I also love that he shoots in BW - One of my favorite quotes is by a man named Ted Grant…
    _ _ _
    “When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls!”

    ― Ted Grant
    _ _ _

    Well done!

    LH

  23. Laurena 08:24am, 05/13/2015

    Kina- I can only hope this inspires you to shoot again. You are brilliant. Kid- thank you so much. I made every effort to do this man’s work justice. I appreciate your comments!

  24. Kid 07:59am, 05/13/2015

    Check out his links, Great stuff

  25. Kid Blast 07:35am, 05/13/2015

    WOW, How cool is this and how unique and great new info as well.

  26. Kina Williams 07:25am, 05/13/2015

    Great article/interview! As a photographer I could relate very well to Peter’s process of telling the story through his art, and the joy a photographer feels when they “know” they got *THE* shot! Especially with action shots and knowing that moment will never happen again. There is an inherent power to that image, and image creation, that speaks well to the triumph and defeat felt by both boxers in the ring. A good action photographer can get “trigger lucky”... but a GREAT action photographer is akin to a great boxer…it takes practice, training, planning, strategizing…Peter definitely holds a triumphant place among the “Greats”!

  27. Laurena 06:30am, 05/13/2015

    Thank you, Jimbo! Much appreciated!

  28. Jim Amato 06:28am, 05/13/2015

    GREAT interview…Well done !

  29. Laurena 05:26am, 05/13/2015

    Thank you so much, Irish Frankie Crawford. It was a labor of love. I adore boxing photography and Peter’s work is simply stunning. I appreciate your comment very much!

  30. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 05:24am, 05/13/2015

    Laurena Marrone-This interview KO’d me! On the Waterfront was filmed in black and white….no color to distract you from the story there, that’s for certain.

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