Bodies in motion, driven to extremes

© John Goodman Rock solid and determined: “Elysia Fridkin, Swan Lake” (2004).

© John Goodman
Rock solid and determined: “Elysia Fridkin, Swan Lake” (2004).

BY NORMAN BORDEN    |  The thought of boxers and ballerinas coexisting in one photography gallery might sound like an odd coupling, but that’s not the case in John Goodman’s first New York solo exhibition. He sees both as bodies in motion, driven to extremes by sweat and sheer determination. Drawn from two acclaimed bodies of work chronicling the Times Square Gym and the Boston Ballet, “Boxers + Ballerinas” is a deft juxtaposition of people seeking recognition in the ring or on a stage.

Goodman says, “I explore the contest between light and dark, power and grace, grit and tenderness.” After viewing the 25 images here, it seems clear that he has scored either a knockout or a bravura performance — it just depends on what corner you’re in.

© John Goodman Light and shadow create something magical, in 2005’s “Enter La Sylphide.”

© John Goodman
Light and shadow create something magical, in 2005’s “Enter La Sylphide.”

In 1993, Goodman began documenting the last 18 months of the Times Square Gym, a legendary New York institution where boxers of every stripe — the famous, the faded and the unknown — had trained since it opened in 1976. When Goodman, who lives in Boston, spotted a sign for the gym while walking through Times Square, he persuaded the manager to let him take a few photographs that day. He came back a few weeks later with prints. The manager liked what he saw and said, “Take as many pictures as you want.”


© John Goodman
“Terrorize” (1991) sends a frightening but appropriate message.

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Goodman’s magnificent selenium-toned silver gelatin photographs reveal the grittiness and decay of the gym and its visitors. There are no fight scenes here, no victory celebrations — just men caught in a moment of reverie, warriors wrapping their fists as if preparing for battle or ethereal figures captured in doorways or windows. There is beauty, though, perhaps most evident in “Terrorize,” one of my favorite images in the show. We see a boxer’s head protected by a helmet, bathed in shadow and framed by a window. The “terrorize” that’s reflected on part of his head adds another element of mystery and danger, and sends a frightening but appropriate message.

Another intriguing image is “Tuxedo Couple.” Goodman uses the shadowgraph technique so they seem to be mystical, ethereal figures — but they’re just two people he captured in the gym’s doorway. Who are these people? What are they doing? We’ll never know. I also liked “Headless + Bag,” in which a boxer on the gym floor is taking jabs at a punching bag, his head obscured by a ray of sunlight. In “Ring,” all that’s visible is the back of a heavily muscled broad-shouldered boxer who is punching an imaginary opponent. The slight blurriness that Goodman uses to convey motion seems to take an edge off the boxer’s strength. So does the earring that he’s wearing — it helps to humanize him. Of course, he’d never wear it in the ring.

The ballerinas shown here are part of Goodman’s 2004 photo essay about the Boston Ballet. Photographing them backstage while they were getting ready to perform, he used shadowgraphs — the same technique he used for the boxer images — to show movement. It’s an approach that reflects the influence of Goodman’s mentor. “Minor White taught me the difference between seeing and looking,” says Goodman. Simply put, White believed the experience of looking at a specific image was of more importance than the object or forms being photographed.

© John Goodman A broad-shouldered view from the back: 1993’s “Ring” humanizes its subject with blurry motion (and an earlobe accessory).

© John Goodman
A broad-shouldered view from the back: 1993’s “Ring” humanizes its subject with blurry motion (and an earlobe accessory).

Goodman shows us bodies in motion that satisfy our need to witness something beyond reality. His use of blurring, shadows and darkness provide a sense of mystery and greatness. We like the experience of viewing these images. It’s almost as if we’re voyeurs, peering into a world we can’t possibly know. In many ways, these images are similar to some of the boxers. Their bodies in motion hint at greatness. You wonder about their struggles to succeed, but you sense some of the isolation that the boxers experience.

There’s something magical about the image “Enter La Sylphide.” Goodman’s use of light and shadow puts the focus on the ballerina and makes this image very painterly, even more so here than in some of his other work. In “Odette/Swan Lake,” the ballerina is silhouetted and isolated. Her face is hidden. She has no identity, and we can only imagine her beauty. In some of the other pictures, we see ballerinas practicing alone, their grace and fortitude shining through. That seems clearly evident in the image, “Elysia Fridkin, Swan Lake” — her hand on her hip seems to make her rock solid and determined.

These are mesmerizing, thought-provoking photographs. Whether you think boxing is just a blood sport or ballet is too ethereal, the pictures will ground you.

Norman Borden ( is a New York-based writer and photographer. The author of more than 100 reviews for and a member of Soho Photo Gallery and ASMP, he currently has an image in the juried show, “Juxtapose,” at the Darkroom Gallery, Essex Junction, VT.

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