The Bullfighting Images

In 1927, three years after Robert was born, Ernest Hemingway wrote the novel The Sun Also Rises. Although I am fairly certain Robert never read the book, its dark themes very much appealed to him when he saw the movie version in 1957. Tyrone Power and Ava Gardner locked in a weirdly thwarted love affair set against the violent background of bullfighting in Spain. (Bullfighting as metaphor for war, of course.)

The movie inspired Robert to travel to Spain in 1960 to shoot a series of bullfighting photographs. His images capture the drama, violence, and tragedy of the “sport.” It is odd to think of bullfighting as a sport. True, the human participants are trained athletes. The matador - the eventual killer of the bull, and the star of the show - is assisted adeptly by two talented mounted  picadores with spears, and three armed bandilleros on foot.

Not only do the bulls inevitably die in the contest no matter how good they are.  Often the horses ridden by the picadores die as well, impaled by a frenzied, charging animal.  The ongoing practice of the stylized fighting of bulls remains justified in many circles by reference to history and the ancient cultural affinities of southern Europe. Despite, or perhaps because of, the sacrifice of the animals involved.

Needless to say, bullfighting has come under considerable criticism in contemporary Europe and Mexico. The contests are often banned (or bans are attempted, only to run up against fierce cultural resistance). Controversial regulations have been put in place, in attempts to allow the spectacle to proceed absent actual animal death.

Ethical issues have risen to challenge other contests (sports?)  involving non-human animal participants as well. Thoroughbred horse racing, for instance, where the beauty and athleticism of the horse is put on display for the entertainment of human audiences, even if the horse’s life is put at risk. Like bull-fighting, there is a deep cultural history behind the racing of magnificent horses. The strength and speed, the beauty,  of the animals overwhelm us at a primal level.

Is it however right (I use that word deliberately) to call these things sport? 

Horse-racing professionals - particularly the human trainers and grooms who know their horses best - often speak of how the horses love to race. How the contest is bred in them, and how they live to run. 

Assuming the humans are correct, the horses still don’t have much of a choice about it.  True, many sports put human athletes at risk on a regular basis. But those athletes hypothetically choose the competition. The bulls in bullfighting - animals bred by humans specifically to be sacrificed in the arena by a dramatic series of mostly male performances with swords and spears and capes - certainly don’t have a choice. 

Nevertheless, their beauty is on exceptional display in the last dramatic fight for their lives. 

What I wrestle with - how to display Robert’s brilliant bull-fighting images? As something akin to horse racing (with its own problems), or something more like war photography? My heart breaks when I look at these photographs. Nevertheless, beyond their inherent beauty, the images honor the athleticism of incredible animals engaged albeit involuntarily in something we human beings call sport.

It’s Been A Minute

I have clearly dropped the ball, pun completely intended, with these posts. To remind people, I am Dawn, the trustee/manager of Robert’s art and photography, the work Robert left at his death in 1995. Almost two years ago, we consolidated the  materials from various spaces around the country. I am still going through it all.

Sadly, we don’t have a complete “collection” of Robert’s entire opus by a long shot. I am not infrequently sent images of his drawings or photographs that I have never seen before. The man was an art machine.

And the negatives. Golly. According to his Wikipedia site, there are 90,000 of them. Slowly, I work through the (literal) thousands of NFL B&W negatives to organize them for auction in the next few years  Again - not a complete collection of his NFL B&Ws. I have yet to find the original negatives for his most iconic football images. The Golden Arm for example. 

That said, there is a lot of good news. I have reviewed (and identified) thousands of previously unpublished gorgeous B&W NFL photographic negatives, as well as negatives of lesser known images. The end of next month, we will have the resources to buy a professional quality scanner, and the software to run it, to start digitizing the whole shebang. And we’re off. 

I have had the pleasure of connecting with the sports collectors community this last year, chiefly through our Instagram. @robertrigerclassicsport. I attended the Nationals last summer. And was completely overwhelmed. (See you in Chicago? Although we couldn’t afford a booth this year.)(Is there still time for Cleveland?)

And I learn a lot about what collectors look for. Type 1 prints. Negative sales. People have been incredibly generous with their knowledge, and I have made friends. 

So a kick-off to more regular Robert Riger blogs. (Sorry I can’t seem to avoid the sports metaphors. It kind of gets in your brain.)

This entry is just a start. I’m hoping to post often with news. I would love to hear from you. I welcome any questions about our collection or Robert’s work. I may or may not immediately know the answer, but I will find out. 

And of course, I will keep everyone updated on upcoming sales, auctions, and donations. Perhaps we can find something for you that you might like for yourself. 

Be well! Below, what a real, live, very active photography archive looks like.


Run Through The Tape

I have been hearing this expression over and over these last days. A possibly overused metaphor leading up to tomorrow’s election?

“Just run through the tape!”  

It is a wonderful metaphor, actually. But the reality of it is even more astonishing.

Robert shot every Olympics from the 1956 Winter Games in Cortina (Italy) to the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona. But some of his most iconic images come from his first Summer Olympics in Rome in 1960. Most iconic - Wilma Rudolph winning the final leg of the 4 X 100 relay that September. She would go on to win three gold medals that month. She was the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympiad.

These images - of her about to breast the tape, then of her with the tape fluttering around her after she runs through it - they feel so very very relevant just now. Especially now, as our nation reminds itself of the courage and brilliance and critical importance of the black lives that have contributed to its wonder. It makes me smile to think of Robert there, in Rome 60 years ago, capturing the beauty of Wilma Rudolph’s win. It’s almost prophetic. The image she leaves behind - of running through the tape - is just what we need right now.

Behind Wilma are silver medalist Jutta Heine (left) of the unified German team, and the Russian Irina Press (center). A Polish team runner placed third, but is out of frame. 

In any case. When you hear all the pundits and political party folks tonight and all through tomorrow talking about “running through the tape” - these are the images that should come to mind. This is how it’s done!

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