What he wanted, what Schatz always wants, is to make something amazing. He’s fond of saying that anyone can make a good photograph—it’s making something exceptional that’s the challenge. So all he ever sets out to do is amaze himself with an exceptional photograph. In this case, his subjects were always game once he explained his philosophy of greatness. These athletes, in particular, responded to the idea of striving for excellence.
"We have to work really hard to do it," Schatz would explain, "and we have to do it together. It’s like winning a championship. It’s not easy. You’re 32 and 2, and you’ve won the WBC and the IBO. It wasn’t easy, it took years, and it could be plucked away from you at anytime. It’s the same with these photographs; we’ve got to really work hard so that they’re fantastic."
Fantastic, they are. Sublime, striking, surreal, simply stunning. This collection of boxing photographs—primarily studio portraits of boxers, although it includes ringside action shots and a bit of documentary as well—might very well be Schatz’s finest work to date. The book itself is certainly substantial enough; it’s literally and figuratively Schatz’s weightiest collection. Which is why once Sports Illustrated got wind of his project, they wanted in.
"I did it because of my interest," he says, "and the fact that there’s a book is really great. Sports Illustrated came to me and said who’s publishing the book? I said I haven’t thought about it yet; I’m still working on it. They said nobody but us should publish this book! But my joy is in the journey. I do it because it fascinates me, it’s my interest, it’s my passion, and it’s my enjoyment."
The Studio As Laboratory
The boxers in the book are mostly champs, but Schatz photographed roughly twice as many boxers, many of whom didn’t make the cut. He photographed up-and-comers and also-rans, and promoters, writers and trainers. Unlike many of his projects that center on exploration of the human form, which is certainly included here, with the boxing book Schatz wanted to paint a complete picture of the sport, to make the ultimate examination of the sweet science. In fact, he likens it to a PhD study. His laboratory, of course, is the studio.
"The whole idea," Schatz says, "was to make remarkable images that I could make up from zero, and you do that in the studio with strobes. But I shot from ringside so that I could get the entire, complete world of boxing. I also interviewed and made portraits of over 150 people who are important to boxers—judges, refs, trainers, cut men, announcers, writers, commissioners, managers, promoters, presidents of sanctioning agencies—they all taught me about boxing, gave me insight to boxing. I tried to cover it in a complete fashion, looking at every possible thing. And, of course, the ringside images are very powerful, but the heart of this work is the original studio work with these boxers.
"For example," he says, "take that image of Sergio Martinez, where you see jump rope on each side of him and he’s in the middle. That’s one frame. Can you imagine technically how complicated that is to do? I timed how long it took the jump rope to go around 360 degrees. It’s 0.3 seconds. So two jump ropes is 0.6 seconds. So if you set off your strobes at a 0.01 seconds, 1/100th interval, that’s 60 strobes in 0.6 seconds. So I made 60 strobes as rim lights in 0.6 seconds to document the jump rope, and I moved the camera side to side, and then at 0.3 seconds, right in the middle, fired one strobe in front. So there he is. Every exposure, every image in the book, is a complicated technological challenge and feat. I didn’t want to make plain pictures. I told every boxer, if it’s easy, it’s been done before, and it becomes ‘so what.’ It’s only when it’s impossible are we close to God. And they all understood that."